“Dear Caroline…where’s my picture?!”
Updated: Sep 10
There they sit. Frozen in time by the art of photography; two somberly dressed women buttoned-up to their chins with the barest of white lace peeping through necklines and sleeves. Shiny hair is sleeked back and parted in the middle, not a strand out of place. Be-gloved hands resting in laps. If you get close enough, you can see one woman is wearing a brooch in the shape of a Christian cross. She’s also holding a book (maybe two), but it’s not thick enough to be a Bible.
They look like missionaries, right? Well, they were. Of a sort. They were teachers in the best possible way.
A few weeks ago, my heart leapt with excitement – then immediately plummeted with despair, such is the world of research—when Larry Bell the historian at the Howland Stone Store Museum sent me an email linking to this image. We had both missed the opportunity to buy the double portrait at Fleischer’s Auction House for the modest sum of $450 even though we were spending considerable amounts of time with the person on the right – Emily Howland. Within a few minutes I was convinced that her companion was Sallie Holley. That this wonderful early picture – and there’s a story attached—slipped through our fingers was awful. The sentiment matched the situation because they were photographed around 1868, and they had every right (like us) to look grim.
Here's the backstory. When the Civil war ended, Emily was angry. She had just spent the last few years teaching the three R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) to Freedmen in the refugee camps of Washington D.C. and Virginia.[i] A pacifist and ardent abolitionist, she had hated the bloodshed of war, but thought of it as God’s punishment for the sin of slavery. She had a missionary zeal to fight for abolition, and once it came, fought for free public education—regardless of someone’s gender, race, age or social standing. “Acquiring knowledge is the strongest power a human being can wield,” she told her students, “work with your might. Let no trifles hinder your attention at school. Storms should not drive you back, storms make you stronger.”
Storms did come. When the Union had won and the dead mourned, Emily had every hope that society would change for the better. Create a new America more equitable than the last, that gave full citizenship African Americans and women. Then Lincoln was killed. President Johnson, a weak man, acquiesced to the senators of the Southern states, and watered down the road to equality. The Freedman’s Bureau established in 1865 to reapportion confiscated Confederate lands to the once enslaved and power public education, stopped doing both, and around the time Emily and Sallie had their picture taken, most white teachers returned to their former lives. The government would not pay for salaries, books, and supplies, and while some Black communities received charitable aid, they mostly had to rely on themselves. The Bureau closed operations in 1872.
In 1866 Emily and her father decided to deliver Lincoln’s promise of “40 acres and a mule” in miniature after his death. They purchased 350 acres of land in Northumberland County, Virginia, called it “Arcadia,” and invited families that Emily had befriended in the Freedmen camps to become farmers at a low-rent-to-buy scheme. Sallie Holley, a girlhood friend, and fellow teacher during the war, was invited to join her in the new school she built upon the site; but within a few months Sallie decided to purchase her own plot of land only ten miles away at Lottsburgh, Virginia where she and her life-partner Caroline Putnam could live and work. Both women stayed there until they died, and the Holley School still continues in some form today. The Howland School would remain in operation until 1952.
When the picture was taken in 1868, building—and operating their respective schoolhouses was consuming most of the women’s time—creating stimulating environments and welcoming any pupil who wished to attend, regardless of gender, race, or age; teaching adults in the evenings after the children had gone home.
“I have a very fine school,” Emily wrote to her father on March 7, 1867, “Never had so good . . . The poor whites take to me naturally. They will send their children soon.”[ii]
“. . . we have succeeded in building a cheerful Teacher’s Home, and a spacious, airy, pleasant new schoolhouse,” wrote Sallie on August 3, 1875. “When we first came, [the students] did not know a letter of the alphabet or the names of the days of the week; and could not count on ten fingers or name the State they lived in. And the ignorance of these white Virginians, too, is appalling – a striking illustration of the truth of what the great [William] Wilberforce said: “No man can put a chain around his brother’s neck and God not put the other end of the chain about his own.”[iii]
Thanks to a letter Emily wrote to Caroline Putnam around 1905, we know that the CdV was a photographed reproduction of an earlier tintype taken around 1868 for which she had a student create a larger drawing:
“…the thought occurred to me that it would be rather interesting to have a picture of myself made by Robert for my school,” wrote Emily. “When I set about finding the picture that I wanted him to copy, the one made from the tintype that one of your parishioners loaned me to get copied I had not one. It is the picture taken about the time that I opened the school, which it seems to me fitting to hang on that wall. Now can you get the loan of that picture again, or if you have a copy of it, will you let me have it to send Robert? It is the same picture that is in the Life for Liberty, the photo that I sent was not returned I think, or I should have had it."[iv]
Emily must have found what she was looking for because a picture was made of her face by Robert J. N. Parker that is now in the collection of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College. On the back of the picture she wrote “1868. Copied from a small tintype by my colored pupil Robert Parker, Heathsville, VA.” [v] Then years later, after Sallie died in 1893 and Caroline contributed to a biography of her life published in 1899, it turns up again as one of the main illustrations in the book.
So there I was. Frustrated; having learned all about this wonderful CdV, but knowing it had just been sold. Never one to give up, I reached out to Adam Fleischer asking if he might broker a re-sale with the new owner, when he called me. “Kim. I have good news.” Okay. “There is another one.” What??!! “I know where there is a second one – from the same CdV print by Squyer Studio in Auburn New York. I figured we’d put it up for sale next year, since we just sold one, but I can ask the owners if they’d be prepared to sell you the second one privately.” Yes please!
Adam asked, they agreed, and I bought CdV no.2. as a gift for the National Portrait Gallery’s collection– assuming the historians and curators agree—and of course including it in my book about Emily Howland (that I should probably be writing right now, instead of this blog post)
All this then, begs the same question that Emily asked over 118 years ago…. where is the original tintype?!
NOTES [i] The Union Army had designated the people escaping slavery as “contraband,” a term to designate an “asset” of war. I prefer to use the term “refugee.” [ii] Emily Howland to Slocum Howland, March 17, 1867. Cornell University Archives [iii] John White Chadwick (ed.), A Life for Liberty: Anti-slavery Letters of Sallie Holley, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, & London, 1899, p. 212-13. [iv] Fragment of a letter from Emily Howland to Caroline Putnam, dated circa. 1905. Emily Howland Family Papers, SFHL-RG5-066, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, item, A00186617. [v] Emily Howland family photographs, SFHL-PA-115, Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College item, A00186815