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The earliest photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association gets a second look.

Manager of Visual Resources Dawn Bonner (above) and Archivist Rebecca Baird set out to confirm a more precise date for the earliest photograph of the MVLA. Photo by Maria Bryk. (MVLA)

Recognized as the earliest group photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the image is an iconic representation of the early pioneers of preservation.

Historically, the photograph gets dated “c. 1873,” likely based on 1873 being the last Council attended by Regent Ann Pamela Cunningham, but Archivist Rebecca Baird and Manager of Visual Resources Dawn Bonner assumed the task of confirming a more precise date for the creation of the photograph and identifying the photographer.

Their research began with first confirming the identities of all of the women present in the photograph (see photo caption). Based on the years the women first join the Association, the earliest possible date of the photograph is 1870. This was the year the Vice Regent for West Virginia (Mrs. Washington) and Vice Regent for the District of Columbia (Mrs. Emory) were appointed. All other members joined the Association prior to 1870. Mrs. Emory, the Vice Regent for the District of Columbia, only served until 1871, so this narrows the photograph’s date to a span of two years.

The Photograph

The Photograph

Left to right (standing): Mrs. Barry (Vice Regent for Illinois), Mrs. Walker (Vice Regent for North Carolina), Mrs. Washington (Vice Regent for West Virginia), Mrs. Halsted (Vice Regent for New Jersey), Mrs. Emory (Vice Regent for District of Columbia), Mrs. Chace (Vice Regent for Rhode Island). Left to right (seated): Mrs. Mitchell (Vice Regent for Wisconsin), Mrs. Brooks (Vice Regent for New York), Mrs. Sweat (Vice Regent for Maine), Miss Cunningham (Regent), Mrs. Comegys (Vice Regent for Delaware), and Mrs. Eve (Vice Regent for Georgia). (MVLA)

Baird and Bonner assume that the photograph was taken during a Council session based on the difficulties of travel, especially for those women residing in the far northern and southern states, and are unaware of another occasion for the group to meet. According to the handwritten Minutes found in the MVLA Archives, the following Ladies were present at the beginning of the 1870 Council meeting:

Mrs. Barry (IL)
Mrs. Walker (NC)
Mrs. Halsted (NJ)
Mrs. Chace (RI)
Mrs. Mitchell (WS)
Mrs. Brooks (NY)
Mrs. Sweat (ME)
Mrs. Comegys (DE)
Mrs. Eve (GA)
Mrs. Morse (LA)*
Mrs. Cunningham (SC)

*Not present in the photograph

 

The above list excludes Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Emory and includes Mrs. Morse, who is absent from the photograph.

A few things to consider, according to the handwritten Minutes, it is noted that Mrs. Washington (Vice Regent for West Virginia), not accounted for on the early attendance list, joins the group during a later Council session. Mrs. Emory, not officially accounted for or mentioned in the Minutes, is appointed to the Committee to inquire as to the expense and utility of placing a furnace in the cellar to preserve the Mansion as well as for the comfort of visitors (along with Mrs. Eve, Mrs. Brooks and Mrs. Halsted). Due to her close proximity to the estate, could she have made the trip from Washington, D.C., to Mount Vernon at some point during Council? The bigger mystery is the absence of Mrs. Morse, which is completely unexplained.

Interestingly, the Association did not hold their annual meeting in 1871. Coupling this with Mrs. Emory’s short tenure as Vice Regent for the District of Columbia from 1870-1871, we strongly believe the date of the photograph is most likely 1870.

 

The Photographer

All copies of the group photograph found in the photo archive have no markings or signatures indicating the creator of the photograph. In 1870, the Association’s contract photographer was Alexander Gardner, whose contract runs through 1878. Gardner takes a photograph of the east front of the Mansion sold as a cabinet card. While undated, it does have unique similarities to the group photograph, namely the greenery around the pediment above the central passage entrance, an ornament hanging between two pillars, and the arrangement of potted plants on the piazza.

Cabinet card of the east front of Mount Vernon. The balustrade and south porch have been removed for repairs. Notice the ornament and greenery hanging between the two middle pillars, as well as the greenery around the triangular pediment above the central door. The following text is printed on the reverse of the cardboard mount (upside down): Alex. Gardner, 921 Penna. Ave. Washington, D.C. (MVLA)

Similarities between the MVLA photograph and Alexander Gardner’s 1870 photograph of the east front of the Mansion (namely the greenery around the pediment) strongly suggest the MVLA photograph was created in the same year. (MVLA)

A Letter from Mrs. Halsted

Finally, Mrs. Halsted writes a letter to Alexander Gardner on July 23, 1878, when the Association is looking to retrieve his negatives following the end of his contract and a financial dispute:

You have my frightful face in the group of V.R.’s taken in front of the Mansion – you arranged the group; you told me 'I must look at the glass.' My eyes were weak from a recent and fearful attack of erysipelas. I thought I must do as I was told, so I screwed up my eyes and face and look like an idiot. If that negative is still in existence, please out of regard for me, never let it pass out of your hands, but destroy it for my sake.

While the negative may have been destroyed, Mount Vernon is fortunate to have retained several copies of the photograph in the archives.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

The MVLA was the first national historic preservation organization and is the oldest women's patriotic society in the United States.

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