A picture obtained by photography; especially, a picture produced or printed on chemically prepared paper, by the action of sunlight, from a negative, or reverse image, taken, by the camera, on glass. — Webster, 1882
H. Sharf has built a neat dwelling house and Photograph gallery combined, on Bedal Street. – Walnut Station items in December 11, 1879, Redwood Falls Gazette.
SAY “CHEESE!” It pops up every now and then: a discussion about when the photograph of Carrie, Mary, and Laura Ingalls was taken, and if Grace’s photo was taken at the same time.
William Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Biography was first published in 1992, and it included
beautiful, full-page facing images of the Carrie/Mary/Laura photo and the Grace photo. The caption beneath the three girls photo dated it to “around 1880.” It was fun to use a magnifying glass and puzzle over details that you couldn’t make out in early postcards or the photos in Donald Zocherts Laura (1976), where he stated the photo of the three girls had been taken “in 1881, after the Hard Winter was over” and Grace’s photo had been taken “about 1879.” While some publications say that an exact date for the photos is unknown, other publications have cited dates, for example: The Ingalls Family Album (1973): Carrie/Mary/Laura, 1881; Laura Ingalls Wilder Country (1990): Carrie/Mary/Laura, “not long after they had settled on the Dakota prairies;” Laura Ingalls Wilder: Storyteller of the Prairie (1997): Carrie/Mary/Laura, taken in De Smet; Pioneer Girl, the Annotated Autobiography (2014): Carrie/Mary/Laura, ca. 1879-1881; Grace, ca. 1878. Many publications include the two photos but mention no date in association with them. Is it any wonder that readers are confused when someone tries to contradict a photograph date they’ve seen in a reputable publication?
No matter where you view them, examining the two photos raises many questions:
Were those the Indian beads Carrie was wearing? Why was Mary holding a book if she was blind? Didn’t Laura say she started wearing her hair up when the family moved to Dakota Territory? Why wasn’t Grace photographed with her sisters? Why is Laura making a fist? Had Mary’s hair grown out after being cut close because of the fever? Is that a flaw or curtain behind Laura’s head, or is it hair? Is Laura’s hair really in ringlets? Has Grace been crying? Is Grace sitting in the same chair that’s in the other photo? Is that chair fringe beneath Laura’s hand? Is she gripping the back of Mary’s chair? How old does Grace look? Is that the same fold in the drape in both photos? Does Carrie look frail? Does Carrie’s dress look like something out of a missionary barrel? Are Laura and Mary wearing corsets? Is Mary too flat-chested to be fifteen? Does Mary look like she’s had a stroke? Why is Mary wearing a ring?
Invariably, someone will point out that the girls had to sit still for thirty seconds or longer back in those days to have a photograph taken. The truth is, by the late 1870s, photographers were using the wet collodion process which had drastically reduced exposure time to only a few seconds or less, depending on the light. This was followed by gelatin emulsion, then dry plate photography. Ponder for a moment how you would get a toddler like Grace Ingalls to hold still with a calm expression on her face for thirty seconds or longer.
In 1996, after a discussion in De Smet about the photos, Little House photographer Leslie Kelly (1940-2016) wrote to me in regard to my questions. According to Kelly, he had not been involved in reproducing the old photographs for any publications, nor had he studied them. After looking at the 1992 publication, he believed, however, that the three girls photo and the Grace photo could have been taken anywhere from “on the same day” to “years apart,” and in his opinion, he believed that the photographs contained different chairs. He wrote that it was a credible observation (mine) that the same [emphasis mine] backdrop appeared in both photographs.
I have never viewed the original photographs, but I’ve learned a few things over the years in conversations with and letters from Laura Ingalls Wilder scholars, both who have and who haven’t studied the original two photographs. Both Grace’s photo and the one of the three girls are tintypes (not photographs printed on paper). The three girls photo is identified as a tintype in Anderson’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Country (1990), and although exact dimensions aren’t provided, the tintype of Grace is said to be about 2×3 inches in size (based on reproduced copies, the original is a more elongated rectangle), with the one of the three girls being around 4×6 to 5×7 inches. These tintypes weren’t among Laura’s possessions at Rocky Ridge prior to the museum’s founding, but were with Carrie in Keystone. While Laura may have viewed them again on her visit to the Swanzey home in the 1930s, they were donated to the Mansfield museum by Carrie’s stepdaughter, Mary Swanzey Harris.
Irene Lichty, curator of the LIW / RWL Home and Museum in the early years, asked Rose Wilder Lane to date a number of items, including the tintype of the three girls. Rose said that it was probably taken “about the time of Little Town on the Prairie,” which would be similar to Zochert’s “after the Hard Winter.” Zochert studied Wilder’s handwritten Pioneer Girl manuscript in Mansfield with the permission of Mrs. Lichty, and his information no doubt came from her. Rose told Mrs. Lichty that “she would like to believe” that the beads around Carrie’s neck were indeed the Indian beads described in Little House on the Prairie.
Will we ever know exactly when the photographs of the Ingalls siblings were taken? Probably not. The dates they were taken were not recorded by any of the persons in the photographs, and while Rose Wilder Lane provided a time-frame for the one including her mother, she was said to have been frustrated with being asked such questions, apparently didn’t care, and said those things didn’t really matter. It wouldn’t be the first time that Rose had played fast and loose with the facts, or facts about photographs. When the Junior Literary Guild decided to include Little House in the Big Woods as a junior book selection, they asked Laura for biographical information. Rose – perhaps with Laura’s permission – wrote an article titled “When My Mother Was a Little Girl” for the Guild’s April 1932 issue of Young Wings, in which appeared a “darling baby picture” of Laura. Only it wasn’t Laura’s baby picture that had been sent to them for publication; it was a picture of Eva Huleatt.
Knowing when the photos were taken does matter to fans and researchers, and we can be just as opinionated and stubborn about those things as Rose ever was.
My own stubborn opinion based on my own research is that I think the two photographs were taken in close succession, most likely in the spring of 1879 before Mary became ill and lost her eyesight. As of Easter Sunday in April 1879, Mary would have been 14 years 3 months old, Laura 12 years 2 months, Carrie 8 years 4 months, and Grace 1 year 11 months. The Redwood Falls Gazette of April 24, 1879, reported that “Miss Mary Ingalls has been confined to her bed about ten days with severe headache. It was feared that hemorrhage of the brain had set in, one side of her face became partially paralyzed. She is now slowly convalescing.” The June 26th edition reported that Mary’s eyesight had failed to the point that she could hardly tell one object from another, but even that slight vision was failing. Charles Ingalls left to work on the railroad in June, and the rest of the family left Walnut Grove to join him on September 6th.
All the girls wear their hair down, and their dresses appear to be summer weight. Mary is relatively flat-chested, and her face is not drawn out of shape as Laura described Mary’s appearance after her stroke and prior to surgery on her facial nerves. In some copies of the three girls photo (there used to be a very large and very clear copy on display in the old museum at Rocky Ridge), you can see a bit of the chair stripe and long strands of fringe below Laura’s right hand, so I disagree with Mr. Kelly. I believe that the same chair was used in both photographs. Mary’s dress fabric bunching clearly shows the round shape of the chair seat.
After carefully matching folds in the curtains, I believe that the curtain backdrop in both photographs is the same. While depth and shadows suggest that it is an actual fabric curtain, there is a spot in the lower left corner of the three girls photo (often cropped from published photos) that shows a completely straight line at the bottom of the curtains, with something curving and white beneath it. This suggests that the curtains were a painted backdrop that could be raised or lowered like a window shade. Backdrops were typically painted by artists, and existing photographs by known photographers (such as Warren Cooledge in De Smet) often show the same backdrop used over and over. They usually had a two dimensional shadow-less appearance that was in stark contrast to the way dress folds or actual drapery appeared. If anyone has ever seen a photograph showing a similar backdrop used in an old photograph, please email. I have never seen this backdrop appear in any photograph other than these two.
Because the two tintypes are different sizes and the subject area (three girls, two of which are standing, versus one seated toddler) is different in size as well, the camera, chair, and/or backdrop would have been re-positioned for each photo, changing the perspective of the two photos. Mary’s eye level and Grace’s are the center of each photo, but Grace’s head is closer to the top of the chair back than Mary’s, so the folds in the backdrop appear higher in Grace’s photo. The distortion is enough to prevent many observers from being able to compare the backdrops favorably, even in images placed side by side. In order to show that the backdrops were the same, I rotated, slightly skewed, and re-sized the two photos so that a single line placed on a single curtain fold between known points in one photo was the same length and at the same angle as a line on the other photo. This distorted the figures instead of the backdrop. While only a sample rectangle is shown for comparison, the match continues to the surrounding area, and can be confirmed by cutting from the three girls photo and pasting into the one of Grace. The composite image above is only about 600 pixels wide, I worked with separate images each over 4000 pixels in width.
When the photographs were taken is still unknown, but contradicting opinions are fine with me.
photograph (OTWH introduction) – Readers have questioned why Laura Ingalls Wilder never mentioned photography or sitting for photographs in the Little House books. She, her friends, her family members, and many Little House characters had their photographs taken multiple times during and/or prior to the Little House years, and Laura Ingalls Wilder fans and researchers are certainly grateful for them. Wilder shared family photographs with Helen Sewell and Garth Williams to help with illustrating the Little House books, but publication of On the Way Home in 1962 was the first to include family photographs.