To kick off Black History Month, here is a cabinet card that has fascinated me ever since I stumbled across it in our Portrait File.
Titled “Little Ethiopians,” it’s a composite of 21 portraits of African-American babies. The cabinet card was issued by Smith’s Studio of Photography in Chicago, Illinois, and bears an 1881 copyright date. I initially thought that the photographer, Joshua Smith, might have been an African-American, but further investigation proved this guess wrong.
In fact, Joshua Smith was a prominent Chicago photographer who apparently achieved his greatest fame as a photographer of white babies. In 1878, Smith submitted a large composite photograph of (white) babies to the Paris Exposition— a “sheet 21 x 16 1/2 inches covered over with portraits of babies and very young children,” according to the British Journal of Photography (Volume 25, 1878). The article goes on to give a glowing review of Smith’s entry:
“There are nearly one hundred of these juveniles’ portraits arranged and vignetted in such a way as to merge one into the other, thus producing a very excellent effect. There are all the most unaccountable positions that babies alone can take, and that we cannot imagine, as well as the hundred-and-one facial expressions so varied and so dear to all doting mothers. This picture is labeled, in quaint American phraseology— ‘We came all the way from Chicago.’ The printing is firm, the whites pure (as in all good American printing) and although evidently the most rapid exposures have been given, the half-tones and modeling are perfect, while the shadows are in due keeping.”
The Exhibition judges were also impressed: Smith won one of three silver medals awarded to United States competitors (the gold medal for American photography went to New Yorker Napolean Saroney).
Smith, a savvy businessmen, capitalized on his success by issuing a condensed version of his award-winning baby montage on a pair of cabinet cards. One, titled “Good Morning,” shows a gallery of 36 smiling and happy (white) babies, and the other, titled “Good Night,” features 40 unhappy crying (white) babies. Unfortunately, N-YHS does not hold either of these cards, but images available online show that both are copyrighted 1880, a year before the “Little Ethiopians” cabinet card. So it seems the latter is simply an African-Americanized version of a formula that had proven highly successful for Smith. The only variations, aside from ethnicity, are that the “Little Ethiopians” cabinet cards combines both happy and crying babies in a single montage, and also includes one older child playing a horn (especially intriguing considering the card was issued 20 years before Louis Armstrong was born!).
All of this is interesting, but it still leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Smith’s composites of white babies were presumably composed of individual portraits, commissioned and purchased by doting middle and upper class parents. But who were the black babies in the “Little Ethiopians” card? who brought them in to be photographed? and who was the target market for this cabinet card? Was there a large-enough emerging black middle-class to make studio portraits of and for African Americans a commercially profitable business? White studios apparently found it commercially profitable to produce images of well-known black personalities (for example, Sojourner Truth) as well as, regretfully, negative and satirical images of African’Americans, and many examples of both can be found in the photograph collections at N-YHS. But N-YHS holds very few studio portraits of African Americans of any age.
Certainly, all three of Smith’s composite images were intended for a mass market. The back of each card serves as a highly effective advertisement for his studio, displaying an image of the medal won in Paris, the studio’s address, and the slogan “Children’s Photos par excellence.” And to reach the widest possible audience, Smith licensed the production and sale of all three cards to E. and H.T. Anthony, the dominant retailer and manufacturer of photographic images in 19th century America with a huge marketing and distribution network. But how images of African-Americans fit into this network is a puzzle that still needs to be unlocked.