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Tuscany, the Napa Valley, Burgundy, and Charlottesville?

11/12/2014

“Wine being among the earliest luxuries in which we indulge ourselves, it is desirable that it should be made here and we have every soil, aspect, and climate of the best wine countries, and I myself drank wines made in this state and in Maryland, of the quality of the best Burgundy.” Thomas Jefferson

Each year my wife and I take a wine trip. No, not to taste the big reds in the Napa Valley or to visit the picturesque countryside of Tuscany or to enjoy the elegant wines of Burgundy. Our trip is actually much closer to home, much more economical, and also offers—we believe (and many others believe as well)—equally magnificent views of vineyards and wines. I’m talking about Charlottesville.

Trump Winery

One of our recent wine trips to Charlottesville. A view from Trump Winery.

Some of us may have heard of the emerging wines and wineries on the Monticello Wine Trail, such as Barboursville’s famous Bordeaux style blend “Octagon,” which is my father-in-law’s favorite and which was also served at the British Embassy in Washington, DC, at their reception celebrating the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Some may be familiar with wineries like Blenheim and Trump because of their famous owners. (Blenheim is owned by the musician Dave Mathews, and Trump winery is owned by Donald Trump’s son, Eric.) But Charlottesville is being noted by many others as a viable option for quality wine and a potential wine trip destination. U.S. News and World Report recently listed Charlottesville as one of the ten best wine vacations. Yes, the town stands alongside the wine juggernauts of Napa Valley and Tuscany, and it’s not just because of Central Virginia’s scenic views. It’s also because of the quality of wine. In a blind tasting that pitted eight Virginia wines against eight  European and California ones, leading wine expert Steven Spurrier preferred six of the eight Virginia wines over the European wines. (Spurrier is also known as the organizer of the “Judgement of Paris” or the “Paris Wine Tasting of 1976”  where California wines defeated French wines in a blind taste test.  This event was portrayed in the 2008 wine cult movie Bottle Shock)  Learn more about the blind tasting.

“Compared to the other American states, Virginia is a national contender,” he declared, explaining that the cooler climate than the West Coast produces wines of brighter, fresher character that are more food-friendly “and most importantly, call for a second glass.”    — Steven Spurrier

Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t be surprised at the U.S. News and World Reports wine vacation list and at what wine experts are saying about Virginia’s wines today. He believed that Virginia had potential. According to Jefferson, “we could, in the United States, make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.” (Thomas Jefferson, 1808) He first planted grapes near Monticello in 1770, and a couple years later, he gave 2,000 acres to Italian Phiip Mazzei, who brought over several different European vine cuttings and attempted to plant them near Monticello. Mazzei’s and Jefferson’s efforts in America soon switched from wine to helping the American cause in the Revolution, and by 1780 the vineyards had faded away. Despite their belief in Virginia’s wine capabilities, they were never able to successfully produce quality wine. Bad weather, plant disease, and insects kept them from fulfilling their dreams of producing wine that would rival those in Europe.

In the early nineteenth century, Dr. D. N. Norton of Richmond began to experiment with an American hybrid grape called the Norton Virginia. He was able to successfully domestic a grape that was both hearty and disease resistant.  More importantly however was that the Norton grape produced flavorful wine and became the foundation for Virginia Table Red, the Virginia Claret. (The Virginia Historical Society hosted a banner lecture on the Norton Grape a couple years ago. Listen to the audio of the lecture.)

One of the wineries that capitalized on Dr. Norton’s work was the Monticello Wine Company (MWC), established in 1873. In a four-story brick building located in Charlottesville on Perry Drive, the company sourced it’s grapes from local vineyards and had the capacity to produce 200,000 gallons of wine. Their Virginia Claret won several awards, including a gold medal in Vienna in 1873 and a silver medal in Paris in 1878. Their Virginia Claret is what put Virginia on the wine map and made Charlottesville the “capital of the Virginia wine belt.” Their other wines were also successful. Virginia Champagne was even used by Governor Montague’s daughter, Gay, to christen the battleship U.S.S. Virginia in Newport News in 1904. By 1914 the MWC and other Virginia wineries began to fade away as a result of crop disease, competition with California wines, and the emergence of prohibition. The Virginia wine industry would not remerge again until the 1970’s, when Barboursville and a few other Virginia wineries began to establish vineyards.

Today, Virginia vineyards are well established. They have become vacation destinations, and the wines they produce are being discussed alongside those made in Tuscany, Burgundy, and the Napa Valley. It’s been a struggle to produce quality wine in Virginia, but they say that vines that struggle make better grapes. So the next time you visit a Virginia winery and taste a flavorful Cabernet Franc, smell a fragrant Viognier, or enjoy a historic Norton, hopefully you’ll agree with Mr. Jefferson that yes, Virginia does “make as great a variety of wines as are made in Europe, not exactly of the same kinds, but doubtless as good.”

View from Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards.

One of our recent wine trips to Charlottesville. A view from Pippin Hill Farm & Vineyards.

Other wine-related information

Greg Hansard is the Manager of Web and Digital Services at the Virginia Historical Society.

The Abolitionists

11/04/2014

On October 16, 1859, John Brown led eighteen followers in a raid on the federal arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Brown planned to use the weapons seized to arm slaves and initiate a general uprising. No one rallied to Brown’s banner, however, and the insurrection collapsed. On October 18, a detachment of marines under Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee attacked the engine house of the armory where the raiders held a handful of hostages. Most of Brown’s men were killed in the attack, and he was wounded. Captured and arrested for treason, he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On December 2, 1859, John Brown was hanged in Charlestown, Virginia.

William Gwathmey's diary (VHS call number: Mss1 G9957 c FA2)

Diary, 1859, of William Gwathmey (1794-1875). Note the limited space available under each date. Farmers diaries usually included little more than notations about the weather and the work performed that day. (VHS call number: Mss1 G9957 c FA2)

The event did not go unnoticed by William Gwathmey, a King William County planter and physician. Like many farmers he kept a diary, recording details about the weather, farming operations, physician’s visits, and activities at the Beulah Baptist Church. Only occasionally did national events intrude on his daily routine. However, on the date of Brown’s execution, Gwathmey wrote, “old ossawatomie Brown to be hanged at Charlestown for murder and insurrection—wicked beast[ly] man.” Gwathmey’s diary entries on this and subsequent days give us a glimpse into the fear, anger, and confusion of a white Virginia planter in response to the Harpers Ferry raid.

Gwathmey’s reference to “old ossawatomie” suggests his knowledge of Brown’s role in the fighting between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces in Kansas. He wrote that the hanging “occurred without outbreak,” revealing a fairly common fear among white southerners that abolitionists would attempt to rescue Brown. Two days later, he wrote that he heard “old Brown was in this neighborhood call[in]g himself McLane sell[in]g trusses.” This statement attests to the power of rumor. John Brown was never in King William County, and Gwathmey’s acceptance of a reported sighting reveals more about his fears than it does about the abolitionist’s travels. The claim that Brown was selling trusses (devices worn for support) may be a way of demystifying and emasculating him. It also reinforces the notion held by many slaveholders that the abolitionists were unmanly and effeminate.Created Equal - The Abolitionists

Gwathmey and other whites in the congregation at Beulah undoubtedly found solace in the passages read by Brother Turpin that day, especially Christ’s words to his disciples: “They hated me without a cause” (John 15:25). Gwathmey recorded these as “He hated me without a cause.” Perhaps Turpin chose this reading in response to John Brown’s address to the court in Charlestown after his sentencing a month earlier.

“This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to ‘remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.’ I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done—as I have always freely admitted I have done—in behalf of His despised poor was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments—I submit; so let it be done!”

On Thursday evening, November 6, at 6:30 p.m., the VHS will show an edited version of the documentary, The Abolitionists, as part of the Created Equal Film/Discussion series. The series is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and is hosted by the VHS in partnership with the Richmond Peace Education Center. It is supported in part by the Gay Community Center of Richmond’s VHS Guy Kinman Research Award.

The documentary tells the stories of John Brown and four other prominent abolitionists.

Bill Obrochta  is the manager of educational services at the Virginia Historical Society.

Meet the Staff: E. Lee Shepard

10/31/2014

From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.

Meet E. Lee Shepard

Meet the Staff - Lee Shepard

 

What is your job title?

Vice President for Collections and Sallie and William B. Thalhimer III Senior Archivist

When did you begin working at the VHS?

I began working here on an NEH grant in the Manuscripts Department in October 1974. I joined the regular staff in 1978; served as interim editor of publications 1980-1981; became director of the Manuscripts Department in 1991; and Paul Levengood made me Vice President for Collections in 2010.

What are your job duties?

My current duties are largely administrative—budgets, personnel, grant administration, oversight of processing operations and conservation; but I spend most of my time in donor relations, working with potential donors on the acquisition of collections and collection pieces, and making some limited purchases for the VHS. I am the lucky one who first gets to see and learn about the incredible things that come into our collections.

How did you become interested in history?

 I remember being fascinated by the subject almost from the beginning of my schooling, and my parents encouraged that interest in many ways—bought me books, for instance, but perhaps most importantly took me on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg when I was about ten years old. That sealed it.

 What is the favorite part of your job?

I don’t get to do it much anymore, but actually working with objects and collections is the best part of what I get to do at the VHS. I never fail to marvel at the variety of things to come to us or that have been a part of our holdings for decades, or at the generosity of so many donors and supporters of the VHS. I am pleased to have been a small part of helping our collection to grow over the years and, hopefully, of making it more and more accessible to researchers and visitors, both here and online.

Lee Shepard and Lady Luck

Lady Luck wasn’t sure if she was quite ready to give ALL her goodies to the VHS. We let her keep this wand since we already have one in the collection.

What has been your most memorable moment at the VHS?

There are actually quite a few, as you might imagine. But I must say that the experience that is the most memorable of my professional life at the VHS was the invitation I received with two other of my collections colleagues to visit the library of the late Paul Mellon, one of the foremost collectors of Americana in the twentieth century. Mr. Mellon had turned his former, very large residence in northern Virginia into a library building/art gallery. He very generously left a third of his collection to the VHS, and the three of us were given free rein to go through the building and select what we wanted. Talk about the proverbial kids in a candy store! Turned out we received seven of the ten top items we requested, and many, many more wonderful things from among Mr. Mellon’s extraordinary collection of rare books, pamphlets, manuscripts and maps, but the mere chance to look at it all—even the things that would go elsewhere—was an experience I will never forget.

 What is your favorite item in your office? Why?

My favorite piece is the Thomas Sully portrait of Conway Robinson that I have been fortunate to have in my office for the past few years, but will soon go on display again in our main galleries. Conway Robinson was one of the founders of the VHS and for many years the chairman of the Executive Committee, which really ran the VHS for most of the nineteenth century. Robinson was a talented attorney and legal author (and I was trained at the University of Virginia as a legal historian, so there’s that affinity), but also a gifted historian and just an all around fascinating person. I try to think of his wise and visionary leadership when undertaking my duties at the VHS and hope that I can, in some degree, live up to the amazing standards that he set.

Conway Robinson (VHS accession number: 1929.3)

Conway Robinson (VHS accession number: 1929.3)

What is your favorite collection piece at the VHS?

Again, so many to choose from. But I guess that my absolute favorite is the earliest surviving land plat and survey undertaken by seventeen-year-old George Washington in 1749. It is amazing to see what Washington as a young man was capable of executing, and I think it gives some sign of the man he was to become. It’s an extraordinary piece and we are amazingly fortunate to have it as part of our collection. I have to confess to some personal pride in this, too, since I was one of the staff members who went on the visit to another generous donor, Mrs. Alice Strauss, who so kindly donated the piece to the VHS almost thirty years ago.

George Washington Plat

George Washington land plat and survey (VHS Call Number: Mss1 St824 a 1)

George Washington’s Land Plat from Virginia Historical Society on Vimeo.

What is your favorite historical period?

I am an early American legal historian by training, but I have always especially loved the period of the American Revolution. Disney movies/TV shows about Johnnie Tremaine (Boston, Lexington and Concord) and Francis Marion (The Swamp Fox) got me into it as a youngster, but my reading and studies cemented that interest early on. And, of course, Virginia lies at the very heart of the coming of the Revolution, the greatest success of General Washington at Yorktown, and the debates that led to the ratification of the Constitution and ultimately the Bill of Rights. Yes, we are a center of Civil War memory, too, but if you look closely enough, you cannot escape the Revolution and the Founding Fathers and Mothers all around.

What are you hobbies?

I love to play chess, although I am not very good at it, watch a lot of football, but most importantly have been a musician (guitarist) since I was fourteen. But then, I have a wife, a house, two children and a granddaughter, so who needs a hobby?

If you did not work at the VHS, what would you be doing?

One of my friends in middle school once told the yearbook editor that he either wanted to be a scientist or a stockcar driver. At the time, I could not think of anything more diametrically opposed. But truth be told, if I was not doing what I am (and have been) doing at the VHS, truly my dream jobs, I think I would be pursuing something wildly different. I always thought airport baggage handler had some intrigue…or more likely rock musician…but only if I could play with Eric Clapton…

 

Eric Clapton and Lee Shepard

Read more blogs written by Lee.

Virginia’s Star Political Cartoonists

10/28/2014

Virginia has been home to many well-known politicians and artists, but it can also lay claim to several prominent political artists. Two of the most influential and accomplished are Fred O. Seibel and Jeff MacNelly. Though they were only briefly contemporaries, their outstanding work, iconic characters, and prodigious output demand their recognition as all-time greats in their field. Selections from both artists’ work can be found here at the Virginia Historical Society, and they are well worth exploring.

Three of the Virginia Historical Society's Seibel originals.

Three of the Virginia Historical Society’s Seibel originals.

 

Fred O. Seibel (1886–1968) was originally a New Yorker, and established himself as a popular political cartoonist working for the Utica Tribune and the Knickerbocker Press, a publication with a strong Republican bent. In June of 1926 he moved to Virginia and began working for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which prompted an about-face from his previous political leanings. He whole-heartedly embraced the established Democratic tradition found throughout the South and would soon call Virginia his adopted home. Working within the restraints of a single-pane comic, he found countless ways to lampoon current political issues, including the effective use of several recurring characters. “The Colonel” was a physical incarnation of southern democratic tradition, “We The People” represented the working class of America, and his most beloved “Moses Crow” was a witty bird dressed in an amusing variety of outfits found in the corners of most of Seibel’s comics.

_DSC3463_detail

Moses Crow could be found in the corners of most of Seibel’s work.

As generous as he was prolific, Seibel made his work widely available and often gave original copies to those who requested them. He kept a remarkably low profile for someone whose famous fans included Charles Lindbergh and Harry Byrd, and by all accounts he lived a very happy, modest life in Richmond with his wife until his death in 1968. There is no doubt that he accomplished his stated goal of doing at least one of three things with his work. “It should make the reader laugh or cry or think. I usually try to make him laugh a little whether I can make him think or not.”

Fred Seibel represented the peak of Virginia political cartooning for the first half of the twentieth century, but the second half was unquestionably dominated by Jeff MacNelly (1947 –2000). He got his start drawing cartoons for his high school literary magazine in Massachusetts and then continued to develop his craft while working for numerous publications at school in Chapel Hill, including the UNC student run Daily Tar Heel. In 1970 he moved to Virginia and began work for the Richmond News Leader, and a mere two years later he became one of the youngest people to win a Pulitzer prize at the age of twenty-four. It was his first of three over the course of a career that would see his work syndicated in nearly 1,000 newspapers. Though he would eventually leave the News Leader for a stint in Chicago, he ultimately returned to Virginia, which he would call home for the rest of his life.

MacNelly (left) with president Gerald Ford in 1977.

MacNelly (left) with president Gerald Ford in 1977. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

His editorial work was only rivaled by his creation of Shoe in 1977, which won the National Cartoonist’s Society Reuben Award in 1979. It traded the single pane format of his editorials for a multi-paned strip, and it created a community of birds to serve up daily doses of humor. It centered on a newspaper run by “P. Martin Shoemaker,” a cantankerous Purple Marten, “Perfessor Cosmo Fishhawk,” a bumbling Osprey, and their odd assortment of feathered friends. Shoe was less directly political than his editorials but still managed to offer plenty of social commentary, as characters complained about taxes, struggled with healthy living, and frowned on their politicians. Sadly, MacNelly passed away too soon in 2000 at the age of fifty-three after a battle with lymphoma. Shoe lives on, however, in the capable hands of his widow Suzie and an assortment of peers. Samples of MacNelly’s editorial work can be found here, and his Shoe comic can be read here.

Tony Walters is a library clerk at the Virginia Historical Society. Read other posts by Tony.

A Bad Day in the Valley

10/19/2014

Today, October 19, 2014, marks the 150th anniversary of the climactic battle in the 1864 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. On that date long ago, many Confederates, if they had thought about it, might have paraphrased Charles Dickens in claiming that “[i]t was the best of days, it was the worst of days.” Those words provide the perfect description of the battle of Cedar Creek, at least from a southern perspective. And one Confederate, who certainly would have agreed with those sentiments, tried to make sense of what happened that day.

The fight began very well for Confederate general Jubal A. Early’s Army of the Valley. The morning assault by Early’s men overwhelmed two Union corps and pushed them to high ground north of the nearby village of Middletown. Things changed, however, when Early’s force halted its attack for several hours in the afternoon. That gave the federals the time they needed to establish a defensive position and launch a counterattack. The subsequent Union assault turned a near-certain southern victory into a complete northern one.

Photograph of Thomas Henry Carter taken after the war.

Photograph of Thomas Henry Carter taken after the war. (VHS Call number: Mss1 C2466 a 115)

In the midst of the action, Confederate colonel Thomas Henry Carter’s artillery played an important role in the apparent southern victory, and two days later, when Carter sat down to write his wife Susan a letter, he was still stunned. “In the morning [the Confederates] were lions, in the evening lambs,” he informed her. “Such facts are incredible to one who has not witnessed them but they are unfortunately too true.” Carter, who was then serving as Early’s chief of artillery, described the events of the battle in great detail. He also offered his own candid assessment of the conduct of the southern soldiers and their officers. “Our Company officers & many field officers are utterly worthless exercising no authority whatever at any time & running as fast as the fastest in battle. Had we a system which could at once reduce these men to ranks something might be done. We are too democratic to have a good army.” Always a proponent of firm discipline and strong leadership, Carter turned his attention to the two most prominent Confederate commanders, John B. Gordon and Jubal Early. Gordon, according to Carter, “really has military genius. Whether he has general capacity enough is doubtful & his administrative ability is certainly not of a high order. He lacks discipline, but he is a giant on the field, not only by his personal courage but by that sort of instinct which teaches a leader to do the right thing at the right time & in the right manner.” The army’s commander, in Carter’s opinion, bore most of the responsibility for the defeat. “As soon as Early took immediate command after crossing the Cedar Creek,” Carter wrote, “the whole affair languished & subsided into a lackadaisical failure. Early is a staunch man with courage & fortitude in disaster & has sustained himself well in retreat, but on the field he is a blank, sees nothing with the eye of genius, is slow & do-nothing in policy & always trying to play a safe game which is generally an unsafe one. He has sense enough but no system & no discipline.” Clearly the artillerist was devastated by the events of the 19th, and he chose to spare nothing in his letter to his wife.

Letter, October 21, 1864, written by Thomas Henry Carter to his wife, Susan Roy Carter.

Letter, October 21, 1864, written by Thomas Henry Carter to his wife, Susan Roy Carter. (VHS Call number: Mss1 C2466 a 88)

Tom Carter’s words bring to life the events of 150 years ago. His fascinating letter of October 21, 1864, however, is but one of many he wrote during the war. They reside at the VHS in the Thomas Henry Carter Papers, 1861–1896 (Mss1 C2466 a). I invite you to come to the society’s reading room and peruse this wonderful collection for yourself.

Graham Dozier is the managing editor of publications at the VHS and the editor of A Gunner in Lee’s Army: The Civil War Letters of Thomas Henry Carter. He will speak about this recent publication at a Banner Lecture at noon on Thursday, December 4, 2014 at the Virginia Historical Society.

Meet the Staff: Lizzie Oglesby

09/30/2014

From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.

 

Meet the Staff - Lizzie Oglesby, Senior Officer for Public Relations and Marketing

What is your job title?

Senior Officer for Public Relations and Marketing

When did you begin working at the VHS?

I began working at the VHS on March 21, 2012.

What are your job duties?

My job duties include:

  • advancing the mission of the VHS by promoting programs, events, and exhibitions, and by developing public relations, marketing, communications, advertising, and social media strategies
  • dealing directly with media outlets and sources, both seeking publicity for the VHS and responding to inquiries for images and information
  • protecting and maintaining the integrity of the VHS in all endeavors related to publicity

How did you become interested in history?

I became interested in history and my family’s genealogy when I first studied Virginia history in third grade. I wanted to know how my ancestors came to Virginia. I still have old drawings of family trees I sketched at my grandparents’ house when I was a little girl and scraps of paper on which I recorded names of long-gone relatives that my grandmother recited to me during car trips on family vacations. As I grew up, I became interested in art history, which I studied extensively to write my MFA thesis in photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

A family tree that I drew in 1992, illustrating my Grandma Katie's side of the family.

A family tree that I drew in 1992, illustrating my Grandma Katie’s side of the family.

What is the favorite part of your job?

My favorite part of my job is meeting new people every day and sharing with them my enthusiasm for Virginia history and tourism.

What has been your most memorable moment at the VHS?

There have been many memorable moments at the VHS, but my favorite memories are of the annual members-only Garden Party. It is my favorite event of the year. I love to dress up and see all of our members enjoying themselves at Virginia House.

At the annual Garden Party with two of my favorite VHS members, Jim Browder and Billy Beville.

At the annual Garden Party with two of my favorite VHS members, Jim Browder and Billy Beville.

What is your favorite item in your office? Why?

My favorite item in my office is a vintage cat statue that has been passed around the VHS for many years and was given to me by a cat-loving colleague.

Meet the Staff, Lizzie Oglesby, cat statue in office

Graham, the cat, watches over my office.

What is your favorite collection piece at the VHS?

My favorite piece in the VHS collection is the portrait of Winnie Davis. There are many beautiful and important portraits in the VHS collection, but no other portrait is more striking to me.

Portrait of Varina Anne (Winnie) Davis. (VHS accession number: 1946.219)

Portrait of Varina Anne (Winnie) Davis, by John P. Walker. Courtesy of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Virginia Division. On deposit at the Virginia Historical Society (VHS accession number: 1946.219)

What is your favorite historical period?

My favorite historical period is the time of the greatest generation. I love everything about the 1940s, especially the music. I feel that I understand that time period more deeply than any other by simply having known and loved my grandparents.

Collage of family photos from WWII, including images of Lizzie's grandparents: Audrey and Ben Eppes and Katie and Bucky Harris.

Collage of family photos from WWII, including images of my grandparents: Audrey and Ben Eppes and Katie and Bucky Harris.

What are you hobbies?

My hobbies include documenting my life through photography and film, collecting and categorizing old family photographs and postcards, corresponding by letters and cards to friends and family, and participating in alumni activities and fundraising for St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Va., and Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.

If you did not work at the VHS, what would you be doing?

If I did not work at the VHS, I would buy a winning lottery ticket and plan a trip around the globe. I would visit every great museum in the world.

Double Take

09/23/2014

During my nearly eight years at the VHS, I’ve had many instances where I’ve needed to stop and do a double take.

 

We need you to photograph a small pox scab.

Wait. What?

 

Those bears are on leashes.

Wait. What is going on there?

 

J. E. B. Stuart signed his pants.

Wait. Really? [not really, but someone signed them for him]

 

When I digitized a set of daguerreotypes this summer I made that familiar pause again.

Wait. Didn’t I just see this image?

 

It turns out that the two daguerreotypes of Lucy Goode Tucker Chambers that I was holding were mirror images of one another. It took me a while to determine what was going on. I compared the ribbon on her bonnet, the swag of her watch chain, and even the book on which she rests her elbow. Did she just shift her weight to the other side, or was it the same image in reverse?

I confirmed it by digitally flipping and overlaying one image on top of the other. After a slight resizing, it was a perfect match. What a unique find!

Lucy Goode Tucker Chambers

When the copy image is reversed and made translucent, it can be easily matched to the original to confirm that it is a copy, not a second original capture.

Daguerreotypes are the earliest form of permanent photographic imagery. They are made by capturing an image on a polished silver-coated, light-sensitive copper plate, which is developed with mercury vapor and fixed with a salt solution. Because the finished plate is viewed from the side that was closest to the subject, when the daguerreotype is created, the image is laterally reversed—a mirror image. The use of a reflective prism could produce a right-reading image, but that was rarely done primarily because the resulting light loss would require already-long exposure times to be even longer. To get a right-reading image, the easiest solution was to make a daguerreotype of the daguerreotype. The resulting copy would read correctly.

White frame house with white picket fence at Cambridge, New York, with horse and buggy in front

White frame house with white picket fence at Cambridge, New York, with horse and buggy in front. This daguerreotype has a mirror included in its case to make it convenient to view the image in the correct orientation. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, DAG no. 1324)

The Library of Congress has an interesting daguerreotype in their collection that shows a house with a picket fence. A landscape view like this is something that would be important to view in the correct orientation, not mirrored. To solve this problem, a mirror was included in the daguerreotype case so that the viewer could look at the photo of the house through the mirror and see a correctly oriented house and street scene. Ahhh, home feels like home again.

Each daguerreotype is a one-of-a-kind photograph. Because there is no negative, there is no way to produce a subsequent print.

With this set of portraits of Chambers we are left wondering if we have two images because 1) someone wanted a right-reading image or 2) someone wanted a second copy. We’ll never know for sure, but we can enjoy this example of early photography either way.

To learn more about the process of making a daguerreotype, check out this excellent video from The J. Paul Getty Museum:

Meg M. Eastman is the Digital Collections Manager at the Virginia Historical Society.

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