Stern-faced may be the way to describe this image, but I always think the people we are looking at were normal, everyday people who loved and laughed just like people today. There is no reason to think their troubles were any more or less serious to them than our modern problems. Formal portraiture was still something people did – sitting for an oil or watercolor required patience and was viewed as a serious occasion. Artists could better portray a subject with a serious face as it was easier to hold for long sitting times. When photographs first emerged, people still had to remain still for what we would consider a long period of time because shutters needed to be opened for a long period of time to fully expose the plate within the camera, thereby capturing the image. While a few minutes was light years faster than the hours needed for a painted portrait, it was still considered a serious occasion because blurring was a very real problem.
As the era of photography advanced, people still considered it an important occasion – due to expense or tradition. If they only got one chance for a photo, they probably wanted it to be the best possible image. People wore their best clothes, dressed their hair in the nicest styles, and sat still with a variety of assisting clamps and headrests. Later in the 19th century, we begin to see more relaxed poses, staged images of comedic scenes, and more natural feeling photography, but by and large, people still sat seriously for their image to be made.
All this does not negate the very real humans behind these pictures. So many times, I see online comments and questions like “why were people so serious?” and of course “people always wore black”. My very favorite (haha) is the suggestion that most of the people we see in these photos are deceased. Well of course they are deceased because the photos are over 100 years old, but they were usually very much alive when their photo was taken. All of this just tells us there is a substantial lack of knowledge and understanding around 19th century photography customs.
This particular tintype was made probably in the 1860s or 70s, based on the draped shoulder seams of the subject’s dress. This was the dominant style during the 1860s when tintypes became incredibly popular. She has a braided crown hairstyle, however, and that style was more popular in the 1870s. This could have been a favorite dress or style that she retained into the later decade. Note her ruffled or ruched collar, and there is a small round pin at the center front. The buttons look like they could be velvet covered buttons, but it’s really impossible to tell because of the image quality.