Research Paper: Whiteness in Antebellum Portraiture

“The portrait is a powerful material culture document; I think it is more meaningful than any other tool.” – Joan Severa, Introduction to My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America, xvi (cover image: 59)

The society of nineteenth-century America placed a heavy emphasis on citizens’ physical appearances, most notably in regards to adorning fashionable clothing. Women especially found themselves engulfed in a need to symbolize popular fashion trends as the visible embodiment of their families’ wealth. Simultaneously to these social trends, American photography in its rudimentary forms of tintype and daguerreotype gained sensational popularity among all social classes. Most prominent among these new photographs were portraits of individuals, purchased to send one’s likeness to friends or family. Naturally, sitters found these portraits an excellent stage for the display of their actual social standing, most prominently with their clothing. Although some sitters undoubtedly dressed above their station for portraits, competitive dressing was uncommon and looked down upon. Using this logic, clothing worn by Americans in their portraits stands as the most accurate and clear evidence as to what social class sitters belonged to, and to what extent each class absorbed the styles of those above it, and of society at large.

Photography as a science developed in Europe, perhaps most notably through Frenchman Louis Daguerre’s 1839 invention of the daguerreotype. Developed from highly polished silver-plated copper onto glass plates, daguerreotypes were available in varying sizes from 1 3/8 by 1 5/8 inches to 6½ by 8½ inches. Almost immediately after its patent, citizens across Europe “desire[d] to apply this new medium to the portrait” (Hamilton 17). The new science of photography found success mainly through the upper-working class in both Europe and America, as “it appeared at a time when a new ‘middle class’ was emerging throughout Europe and America, a social group which saw photography as the ideal medium to represent its own visual identity” (7). The visual identity of this middle-class centered on individuals, and portraits of themselves and others were highly desirable.

Whereas people viewed painted portraits as, best case scenario, a “likeness” of the sitter, photographs were considered a true vision of the sitter by from both sides of the lens (Goldberg 7). Due to its scientific nature, photograph and truth became almost synonymous so that photographic portraits were considered the epitome of the portrait genre. Peter Hamilton states: “Indeed the term ‘photography’ itself was widely used as a synonym for objective knowledge: reporters from a variety of fields included the word as a way of announcing that that they had done was to bring back and accurate account” (14). Sitters consciously chose the clothing, studio, and in many cases even the photographer and background for their portraits, however their dress and appearance could not be changed once the photograph had been taken. This presents a difference from painted portraits where virtually any aspect of the image could be changed be the artist, due to whim or sitter’s request. While postmodernists may instead view photographic portraits as “a picture: a construction, made, not begotten,” the prevailing nineteenth-century view of photographs as truth must be respected in that the science was the most true visual representation known at that point in history (Green-Lewis 37).

In the 1840s daguerreian portraits reached phenomenal popularity in the United States, only to be ushered out of favor in 1861 by modern photography (Severa xii). In those twenty years of the daguerreotype’s dominance, ambrotypes (a wet-plate collodion process) and tintypes (a gelatin-based processes) also reached popularity within the lower classes of America; however, mainly tintypes survive to the present day. Most portrait studios of all types maintained business on the east coast, especially New York. This is probably due to the concentrated urbanization of those areas compared to the rural Western territories. Yet scattered photographers, if not full-blown studios, appeared throughout the nation in a testament to society’s newfound need for portraits.

Early photographic portraits easily represent the ‘normal’ of society as they were available in diverse forms to the majority of society across prevailing socio-racial boundaries (Hamilton 60). Indeed “There is little in most Victorian photography books to startle or disturb the casual viewer [as] scenes of comfortable domesticity [and] bourgeois family life;” early portraits present placid ordinary people content to explain themselves through their clothing, along with backgrounds and body positions, and facial expressions (Green-Lewis 40).

Socially, the majority of classes, and certainly all middle- to upper-class families, were able to afford daguerreotypes, as the size of the glass-plate print made determined the portrait’s price. Sixth-plates (2¾ by 3¼ inches) were available for persons of moderate to lower income while half-plates (4¼ by 5½ inches) and the rare full-plates (6½ by 8½ inches) were used by those possessing wealth as a luxury. Daguerreotype salons earned a reputation among the monied middle class as having “established a trend for creating a sense of special occasion, showcasing the very latest in interior design and decoration,” therefore encouraging sitters to present their best selves and clothing in the portrait (Hamilton 32). However this ‘sense of occasion’ functioned only for wealthier patrons, whose ordinary clothing alone would produce spectacle for lower, working classes. These lower classes were afforded none of the luxuries of studios and props, often utilizing only themselves in their portraits.

Tintypes offered these poorer classes, generally workers, a much cheaper solution to the problem of having one’s portrait taken (Carlebach 10). Tintypes were, true to their namesake, developed on tin rather than glass and therefore much more durable than daguerreotypes, and represented the ideal for rough and working families who desired portraits of themselves to give away (Carlebach 22). Moreover, sitters for tintypes typically posed in their work clothes with the tools of their trade, which often made for awkward portraits. Refined sitters with the ability to afford daguerreian portraits posed placidly among props provided by the photographer and/or studio. Thus sitters brought clothing with them for their portraits, if nothing else.

In 1854, Albert Sands Southworth, a popular American portrait photographer, published in The Lady’s Almanac:

Suggestions for ladies who sit for Daguerreotypes: / Remember that positive red, orange, yellow or green, / are the same as black, or nearly so; / and violet, purple and blue / are nearly the same as white; / and arrange your costume accordingly (Severa xv)

This limerick illuminates many facts to the modern reader: first, it strengthens the idea that portrait photography was astoundingly popular in the mid-nineteenth century; second, it supports the statement that sitters brought their own clothing for their portraits; third, it suggests that women were a particularly strong market for portraits; and fourth, it reminds us that special attention must be generally paid to all colors used in black and white photography.

Earlier in the nineteenth century, women’s fashion settled on simplicity, epitomized in the post-Revolutionary woman clothed almost entirely in white (Heneghan 103). As Victorian society became more ornate, so too did women’s clothing, “following a constantly varying design, travel[ing] throughout the feminine sphere tying all things together visually” (89). This visual unity is perhaps best exemplified in photographic portraits, which depict the woman and her clothing as the center of an image designed to represent the sitter in a most positive light.
Without striking colors to exhibit in their portraits, female sitters instinctively relied on clothing pattern and texture to add excitement to the portrait. Their highly embellished dresses also held a place in popular fashion for time, so the lure to wear such dresses for sitting was not in any way radical. Also important is Southworth’s note that certainly colors appeared “nearly the same as white,” but not pure white. In this manner white as a clothing color could be rather effectively used as a contrast to the grays and blacks usually dominating the frame. The use of white more commonly as a symbol of desirability shall be examined later.

Furthermore, the patriarchal society controlling antebellum America required women to appear and dress in certain manners that emphasized their femininity. For the most part, women assumed this mentality and made dress a central part of their lives. Publications announcing and show-casing the latest fashions swept across the growing nation, allowing all women access to such information if they desired. As fashion historian Carol Mattingly notes: “Fashion periodicals, a primary constructor of women’s bodily image in the nineteenth century, related supplementary detail with regard to women’s “proper” place and role. Widely read, these periodicals became the authority on appropriate dress for ‘ladies’” (xiv). These publications reached across America into the western territories by 1845, where female settlers wore fashionable clothing as often as was realistically possible (Severa xvii).

Clothing that constituted ‘the latest fashion’ changed with substantial velocity, as strikingly different costumes were considered appropriate per wearer’s age, current season, and time of day (Mattingly 7). Upper-class women, who purchased larger daguerreotypes, were also able to afford new clothing for each passing fashion (10). Those who could not afford such volumes of new clothing saved their money and made fewer clothes, “but when they finally could make a dress, they certainly followed the most popular cut, if only in cheap cotton” (Severa xvii). Since lower-class women needed to budget their money, their dresses utilized less colors and ornamentations than those of richer women, though differences in color may not appear in black and white photography (Mattingly 12). On the same scale, free African-American women wore clothing utilizing little ornate-ness and variety in colors, most often using coarser cloth in solid colors.

Here “clothes became a way of asserting class and gender distinctions, providing fine gradations in femininity, sentiment, and wealth” in antebellum society; a simple visual representation of whom and what a person was (Heneghan xvi). White skin obviously signaled respectability and affluence in many scenarios; a symbol that women carried into their clothing. Clothing was a natural outlet for portraying symbols, as a woman’s dress went with her everywhere and the colors could be easily understood by others with social and/or fashion knowledge. As will be examined later, the whitest of skin blended naturally (in early photographs) with white clothing, allowing some women to visually merge with their clothing in an ultimate statement of whiteness. This idea of whiteness as desirable originally extended from household objects, of which the most expensive were bright white and least expensive were earthen brown. As dishes and drapery began to match the skin-tone of the families owning them, fashion adapted these colors into everyday clothing as well. Thus upper-class families with wealth to spare most readily adopted this white trend, and displayed the trend most visibly with women’s fashionable new dresses.

If the wealthiest of white women wore white, this ideological manifestation worked on a gradient scale (based on availability and social position) so that less wealthy women wore light colors and some white in their clothing. African-American women were left with darker earth tones in their clothing, along with some white used as an accent color. Children almost functioned outside of the whiteness ideology, as they were seen most often clothed in white regardless of age, more as a testament to their childhood innocence than to the social class of their parents. As no information or portraits of African-American children in the early nineteenth-century has met my attention, I only assume that the practice of clothing children in white reached across socio-racial boundaries.

Bridget Heneghan asserts that “the white things of the early nineteenth century signified more than racial concerns-including the traditional understandings of moral purity, as well as refinement and democracy, cleanliness, femininity, and order” (xiii). While this may certainly hold true, all that can be learned from viewing portraits of women in antebellum America is the amount of white appropriated in their dress. As Heneghan focuses mainly on the consequences of the ‘white things’ mentality appropriated by women, no concrete examples other than “households” and “landscapes” are given (xiv). Thus my investigation into white clothing provides what is perhaps the best in-depth look at whiteness and antebellum women.

Photographic portraits give historians “not only the artifact, in this case clothing, but also the person who used it and sometimes even made it,” which strengthens arguments about clothing associations with an accuracy that no other medium can reach (Severa xvi). In the case of photographic portraits, viewers are presented with a sitter who has chosen to wear a certain outfit, and thus in analyzing the outfit more can be learned about the sitter that consciously wanted to be represented by that set of clothing. In my study of color, photographs came as a natural choice because they present a full spectrum of context for the color white in terms of type and style of clothing that the white was used in, age and skin color of sitter wearing the white and relative affluence of the sitter as well.

Of the 370 antebellum (so, ca. 1840-1860) photographic portraits I have been able to locate, 222 are of young to middle-aged white women. This further indicates the relative popularity of portraits for women as venues women to exhibit, among other things, their best clothing. After women, white children were the most popular sitters, with 117 portraits found in my research. Elderly white women constituted only 25 of the portraits, though their photographic presence is not to be underestimated. Finally, only six African-American women are found in portraits of this era, though I will note that their presence increased dramatically after the Civil War, especially in the 1880s.
Representing the least expensive category of portraits, tintype artists hoped merely for “rapid turnover and a modest profit, while all that the sitter desired was a simple likeness to keep or to give away” (Carlebach 22). Here portraits are not exhibitions of popular dress and culture, but a testament to everyday working life. It is precisely this fact that gives tintypes their poignancy in this study. The amount of white the lower classes portray in their occupational portraits gives insight into the extent to which whiteness was absorbed by fashionable society. What white items the lower-class sitters adorn in a portrait speaks to how important the color white was to the rest of society, which would have worn the color more casually casually. The worker’s ability to merely “join the ranks of those who owned pictures of family and friends was momentous,” and a glimpse into upper-class life (22).

Due to their occupational nature, tintype portraits present mostly men, although 19 women appear in Carlebach’s definitive collection. Of these few women, 17 are shown wearing some white and two wear none. Adorning mostly white clothing in the workplace would be irrational, as the fabric would most likely be quickly ruined from dirt and hard labor. Instead these working women wear some white in their outfits, perhaps to signal their femininity while working, or in a general refusal to give their feminine appearance up entirely. This challenges Heneghan’s idea that femininity was strongly based strongly upon having “nonwhite bodies publicly do the work” (97). When those who engage in ‘the work’ adorn white clothing, they in some sense cheapen the appropriate of the color as used by upper-class citizens. However this may also be viewed in the light of these working women possessing darker than normal skin for white women and therefore constituting a lower social position solely based on their tans.

Yet the white seen in these portraits is not the fancy trim and lace of the upper class, but more often aprons and bonnets (image: Carlebach 106). Instead of white for the sake of femininity, these women may instead wear white in an effort to keep their regular clothing clean or, along a stronger fashion vein, to provide a contrast against their usual dark dresses. As an example, the milkmaid pictured presents white skin darker than her white apron, and the two shades function on the gradient scale in which lower-class women wore light colors and only some white in comparison to upper-class women overall adorning more white clothing. She asserts herself as feminine with the dress, bonnet, and occupation requiring much less physical work than those usually taken by men. However she cannot assert the level of whiteness exhibited by the upper-class because her poorer budget does not allow it.

Children are understandably poorly represented in tintypes, as comparatively few held jobs. Only four appear in these occupational portraits (all boys), two with their father and two with a fruit cart they undoubtedly run (image: Carlebach 84). Here only one wears white, making the outfit appear as more of the day’s choice or the only outfit owned than a particular uniform. Still, the boys are old enough and worldly enough (in already having occupations) to have lost their childhood innocence; a trait that would have traditionally clothed them in white. Viewers may also assume that boys who started work at an early age came from parents lacking the financial means to support their families. Taking this into consideration, the children may not have owned much white clothing, partly because of its expense, the rate at which they grew out of their clothing, and because of the expense of keeping such clothing white in the hands of rough boys. In either case, the children represented in occupational tintypes wear less white clothing than any other category that I have examined.

Daguerreotypes, in contrast to tintypes, portrayed middle- to upper-class patrons until the advent of photography, at which point they became functions of middle-class society and then obsolete. For the approximately twenty years daguerreotypes were in vogue, women adorned themselves respectably within societal standards in order to have their portraits taken.

Of these now anonymous sitters, a significant 85% wore some white, mostly in the form of collars, sleeves, and trim on the fronts of dresses. In this portrait particularly, the sitter’s skin blends almost naturally with the white trim of her dress. While this coloration may have occurred while developing the glass or in the 150 years afterwards cannot be known, and thus viewers are left with women whose skin shows no sign of blemishes or outdoor work (image: Severa 18). The daguerreotype sitter’s pale skin “was necessarily a marker [of her whiteness], but one of considerable delicacy: a white thing, but non-replaceable and non-disposable, requiring Herculean efforts in cleanliness and protection from scarring, tanning, and marking” (Heneghan 131). Unlike the seemingly humble milkmaid, those able to afford daguerreotype portraits represented a more docile class, one able to appear as fashionable as they wished.

After the women wearing mainly white embellishments, the most popular trend (at 8%) was wearing mostly white clothing. This may be attributed to the fact that many upper-class women sat for daguerreotype portraits and felt themselves best represented in white clothing. However, these 14 portraits may have been taken during summer or on holidays when white dress was most appropriate for ladies. This speculation also favors upper class women, as they would be most able to afford new dresses for such an occasion; which is not to exclude the idea that poor women may have saved money in order to make one new dress for their portrait.

Similarly, the three women wearing all white in their portraits were brides wearing richly embellished full-length gowns. The theory that upper-class women represented themselves in the largest amount white clothing does not necessarily hold up in this case. These brides may instead have embodied a desire to be the most feminine and the most upper-class that they can possibly achieve on what was viewed as the most important day of their lives. Here whiteness symbolized purity and femininity in perhaps its strongest way, as white wedding dresses prevail as a standard into the modern day.

In contrast, not one elderly woman found in these daguerreotype portraits wore an outfit of all white or even mostly white. A greater percentage of them (12%) failed to wear any white clothing at all in their portraits. However the 88% of elderly women adorning some white in their outfits may attest more to fashion trends than do their younger counterparts (image: Severa 130). As Severa explains: “Portraits of well-dressed matrons of this period almost do more to define the role of fashion in the nineteenth century than do those of younger, slimmer women. They prove that no matter how removed from the fashion scene or even the fashion ideal, ladies of any age made a supreme effort to wear up-to-date styles” (131).

Children captured in daguerreotype portraits represent the opposite of elderly women, as they were most frequently dressed denied the choice to dress themselves. More children (14%) are pictured wearing mostly white in their daguerreotype portraits than any other category of sitters. However this still represents a minority compared to the 73% wearing only some white. Clearly children characterize a slightly altered world of dress from adults, also exemplified in the practice of dressing toddlers of both sexes alike so that “it is sometimes difficult to determine by costume alone the sex of an unidentified child” (Anderson 11).

As the vast majority of nineteenth-century fashion information revolves around women, dress codes for older children are conjecture at best. Yet the amount of white presented in their portraits corresponds with the amount of white clothing in other daguerreotype categories (image: Severa 215). With children the assumption is made that their families (particularly mothers) projected fashion and whiteness ideals onto their children for proper and presentable portraits. However, the white embellishments remain much the same as in adults’ portraits, here the lace on sleeves and under-skirt that blend almost perfectly with the sitter’s skin.

Least represented in portraits are African American women, of which my research unearthed a total of six, all daguerreotypes from Severa’s collection (image: 79). All six wore some white on the day of their portrait; strengthening the idea that “black women rarely adopted unusual or radical attire” in an attempt to gain acceptance from society (Mattingly 111). This young woman still distinguishes herself from mainstream white women in wearing a turban. Although she also bears white collar and cuffs against a solid dark color like the dresses of white women, the overall outfit demonstrates an acceptance of popular fashion designed as a “a proper means of keeping free blacks in their place” (10).

The most commonplace sitters for photographs are now mostly famous names, as they were best able to afford a sitting for the expensive new science, and would be most desired as sitters by photography studios and middle-class audiences. Once again, the majority (58%) of these young women adorned only some white in their photographic portrait. As seen with Clara Barton (image: Matthew Brady Portraits), white embellishments were much less visible here than in tintypes and daguerreotypes. The two women who wore all white were again brides in wedding photos and the two wearing no white were photographed shortly after their husbands had passed away.

Overall, exactly 80% of the sitters examined wore only some white in their portraits. This majority supports the idea of women dressing themselves in white to demonstrate their best femininity and upper-class attributes. Although this research does not conclude that white definitively symbolized the upper-class and feminine, it stands as a logical theory for what white may have symbolized. Regardless of what ideology best represented white clothing, my research asserts that across social boundaries, the vast majority women bought in to this argument by wearing at least some white clothing. That antebellum women were aware of fashion trends as they appeared cannot be disputed. Any adherence to fashion trends would most certainly had manifested itself in photographic portraits of the era due to the new science’s popularity among all classes of Americans.

Not only did the desire for photographic portraits transcend social boundaries in the 1840s-1860s, but relative colors of clothing worn across classes also remained equal. Although the true colors worn by sitters in their black and white portraits is rarely known, white stands as the only color truly showing as white in these photographs. By quantifying the amount of white sitters wore for their photographic portraits, I have contained the only evidence that can be derived without conjecture. The portraits have shown that the amount of white and nearly-white clothing worn by the women and children previously examined stands as almost exactly equal.

As most of the sitters wore white as an accent color on their collars and sleeves, even the use of white by people of varying races and classes achieves equality. Women of lower classes and darker skin-tones than the aristocracy would not have engaged in “competitive dressing, or overt imitation of the fashion standards designating a higher class,” as this would have been seen as unrespectable and “a violation of the feminine disavowal of instrumental things” (Heneghan 104). Therefore, any notions of upper-class women wearing more white clothing than lower-class women, for whatever reason, cannot be completely substantiated.

What appears, instead of varying amounts of white, is differing ways in which women and children portrayed the small amounts of white present in their portraits. Middle- to upper-class women and children displayed white as trim to their darker clothing, accenting the richness of the other fabric color, and allowing their skin to blend with sleeves and collars in their photographs. Lower-class women utilized white on necessary additions to their working clothes, usually aprons and bonnets. Children of these working women show no pattern in their use of white, and probably wore the color based on availability rather than fashion consciousness. African-American women displayed their white most uniquely, taking the cuffs and collars trend from more affluent women and accenting that with turbans, a derivative of the working woman’s bonnet. Here each demographic photographed displayed their fashionable white clothing in slightly differing ways, each asserting their claim to whiteness, femininity, and affluence while still stating their station and personality.

Works Cited
Anderson, Molly. “Children’s Portraits.” Ancestors: An Exhibition of 19th Century American Portraits. Oberlin: Press of the Times for the Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1980. 5-7

Carlebach, Michael L. Working Stiffs: Occupational Portraits in the Age of Tintypes. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2002.

Green-Lewis, Jennifer. “At Home in the Nineteenth Century: Photography, Nostalgia, and the Will to Authenticity.” Victorian Afterlife: Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century. Ed. John Kucich and Dianne F. Sadoff. Minneapolis: Minnesota, 2001. 29-48

Goldberg, Marcia. “Some Aspects of 19th Century American Portraiture.” Ancestors: An Exhibition of 19th Century American Portraits. Oberlin: Press of the Times for the Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1980.

Hamilton, Peter and Roger Hargreaves. The Beautiful and the Damned: The Creation of Identity in Nineteenth Century Photography. London: National Portrait Gallery, 2001.

Heneghan, Bridget T. Whitewashing America: Material Culture and Race in the Antebellum Imagination. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2003.

“Matthew Brady Portraits.” National Portrait Gallery. 20 Jun 2000. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed 18 Mar 2007. <>.

Mattingly, Carol. Appropriate[ing] Dress: Women’s Rhetorical Style in Nineteenth-century America. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2002. 11-13

Severa, Joan L. My Likeness Taken: Daguerreian Portraits in America. Kent: The Kent State UP, 2005.

Works Consulted
“1896 Photographic Salon.” National Museum of American History. 26 Nov 2003. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed 18 Mar 2007. <>.

“Augustus Washington in Hartford, 1844 – 1853.” A Durable Memento: Portraits by Augustus Washington, African American Daguerreotypist. 30 Nov 2004. National Portrait Gallery. Accessed 3 Apr 2007 <>.

Ellis, Pamela. NYPL Digital Schomburg Images of African Americans from the 19th Century. 9 Apr 1998. The New York Public Library. Accessed 3 Apr 2007 <>.

“HELIOS: Secrets of the Dark Chamber.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. 31 Mar 2004. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed 18 Mar 2007. <>.