Sunday, May 1, 2016

Fox Sisters' Lost Cabinet Card?

About a year ago, a curious item popped up on eBay. It was a cabinet card claiming to be of the infamous Fox sisters.

It didn't last more than a few days before it was removed. Miraculously, it returned last week, and I was able to snag it.   The seller provided this description:

DESCRIPTION: - Please Read – Years ago, I obtained this cabinet card from a photography collector in Philadelphia. He has since passed away, so I could not obtain more information. The card is labeled “Fox Sisters’ in pencil twice on the back. I started this card as an eBay listing some time ago and was contacted by a number of people to ask if it was really related to the Fox sisters of spiritualism fame. Because of the questions, I ended the listing. For a short period after that, I fiddled around with google to see if I could determine if it was of the Fox Sisters involved in spiritualism. I could not. Images of them are rare and I could find very little to compare. One collector advised me that the image did not appear to be the Fox sisters. He thought there were of dissimilarities in likeness and that they would have been in late 45 to 50 years old at the time the Gutekunst studio operated.

These two girls look simultaneously familiar and older girl with a slightly rounder face and a younger with sharper features...a common depiction of the sisters. 

From left to right: Maggie, Kate, and Leah

Unfortunately, though the eBay cabinet card does seem like a plausible match to the above depictions, it is very different from their most famous photograph: 

This image, which resides in the Easterly Daguerreotype Collection at the Missouri History Museum, was taken in 1852 by Thomas M. Easterly in St. Louis, when the girls were 19 and 15 respectively. At the bottom is inscribed: Kate and Maggie Fox, Rochester Mediums, T.M. Easterly Daguerrean. 

It is interesting to note that this famous photograph was taken during their first national tour, just four years after the events in Hydesville and just months before Maggie would meet Elisha Kane. 

Looking at the comparison, it is hard. There are clear physical differences between the Easterly daguerreotype at the new Gutekunst cabinet card.

As to be expected the illustrations of the sisters vary greatly. 

Again, the Gutekunst girls are younger, but could that be enough to explain the physical differences? Puberty does obviously affect people differently, and some drastically. 

In the lower photo both girls are leaning their faces downward, and their higher collars cover the necks. Unfortunately too, the photograph is overexposed so some of the details are obscured. It is hard to compare their physical differences without knowing the camera lens and distance to the subjects. Which can make a huge difference on subject's appearances. 

The girls look just similar enough in both photos, that I go back and forth about the possibility. 

Amazingly, when the girls were in Philadelphia arriving in 1852, they stayed Webb's Union Hotel, at 317 Arch Street. Gutekunst studio was located at 704 Arch Street...a crazy connection. 

Unfortunately there is a huge reason that the Fox sisters never visited the Gutekunst studio. Gutekunst didn't open his studio until 1856, after the girls had left Philadelphia and four years after the Easterly image, which meant, the girls were 22-23 and18-19 when the studio was opened...definitely not the age of the girls in the photograph. 

Even further, the seal on the back of the card lists the studio address as 712 Arch St., the studio which he didn't move into until 1864. So that's not good for the fate of the photograph. 

So despite the amazing coincidence that the girls would've stayed blocks away from where the studio would eventually open, they didn't overlap. 

So what are the possibilities? 

1. Fox is a very common name, and these are simply a different set of sisters. 

2. These two girls looked similar enough to infamous ones, that someone found the card, made some tangential connections, and penciled their names in well after the fact. 

3. Gutekunst was an enterprising business man, who similar to #2 had a photograph of two girls, thought it'd pass for the famous sisters and proceeded to sell the card as a Spiritualist relic. 

Which is a hard one to believe as the Fox sisters were popular figures during their tenure in Philadelphia with a great deal of prominent supporters. The newspaper covered their movements, seances, and of course Maggie's relationship with Kane. So people knew who they were and presumably would be able to spot a fake. 

Now there is a final interesting piece of evidence that could again return provenance to the card. A little stamp in the lower right corner:

The stamp reads "Copy." A common practice of photography studios when they had a famous sitter, or a client who wanted several copies on the portrait. The image would've originally been an ambrotype, taken on glass, and then exposed as a negative to create an albumen print. 

It was also common to straight up take photographs of other photographer's famous photos and reprint them for their own uses. Which would explain why the image looks over-exposed, a photo of a photo. 

If either was the case, Gutekunst was pretty scrupulous to include the Copy stamp.  Which also explain the time difference, as in the photograph was taken when the girls were young, but later printed as a copy when he was in the 712 Arch st. studio, and at the height of their Spiritualist fame. It is very possible he was among the throngs of supporters who saw the girls perform.  
Which leads to...

4. He acquired a glass plate negative of the girls, or that someone claimed was of them, and created this cabinet card for sale using either the original plate or a copy? 

Occam's Razor - 
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  

I contacted Sarah Weatherwax, Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and keeper of the Gutekunst archive. She was incredible generous and helpful with her time offering several options to identify the sitters. After several emails back and forth she responded:

I asked one of our volunteers to go through Gutekunst’s ledger books looking for the name “Fox” as well as what is probably the negative number assigned to the image. He found nothing corresponding to the number, but did find some sitters with the last name “Fox” but none were named Margaret/Maggie, Kate/Catherine, or Leah. My best guess is that the Gutekunst cabinet card you have in your possession is a copy of a daguerreotype taken in the 1840s or early 1850s.

One of the reasons that daguerreotypes had a fairly short period of popularity (1839- early 1860s) is that they are one of a kind images in which no negative was created. It does not strike me as odd that someone brought a daguerreotype to Gutekunst’s studio to have him make a copy of an old image via a process that now would create a negative that could then be replicated (in this case as a cabinet card.)

I have in my Gutekunst research file a photocopy of a Gutekunst advertisement in the collection of the Historical Society of PA stating “Particular attention given to Copying Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, Oil Paintings.”

Cabinet cards were extremely popular for portraits from the 1870s through the early 20th century, and while I am not a costume historian, I can say with confidence that these girls are not dressed in clothing from the 1870s or later. Their hairstyles and dresses seem more appropriate to the 1840s/1850s period. It also doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that an image of the famous Fox sisters would be exactly the kind of image smart entrepreneurs would want copied in order to sell to the curious public. Of course, it could also be that the not-famous Fox family wanted copies of an image of relatives when they were younger to distribute to other family members.


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