The Woman behind the Photo

Is a photo really worth a 1000 words? What can we learn about a person from their photographs? What stories do photographs tell?

These questions are often those that historians and especially those who are interested in the history of women ask. Unlike men, women do not always leave a written record behind them. They appear to us not through their words but often through those of others, and more often through the things they leave behind: their photographs, their clothes, and their furniture.

Alice Wade Everett (1859-1916), the wife of Sylvester T. Everett (1838-1922) and only sister of Jeptha Homer Wade II (1857-1926) is one of those women. In the finding aid for WRHS MS. 3292 there are few papers directly related to Alice, and so she appears primarily through the recollections of others: Her father Randall Wade and her grandmother Susan Fleming. However, Alice is not absent from the material record. Her wedding dress, designed by Worth, is one of the jewels at the WRHS costume collection. There are also photos of her and the great house on Euclid Avenue she lived in, which shed light on her everyday life. Recently, through the kind donation of one of her family members, we received a moving compilation of recollections by her daughter Ruth Everett Worthington (1896-1987), which sheds light on Alice’s character.

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Alice Wade Everett (1859-1916), Photo Taken by George M. Edmondson, Courtesy of Cleveland Public Library Photograph Collection

Given the little evidence there is in the collection on Alice, when I began my research on the women of the Wade family, I started by looking at her photographs, thinking what kind of stories do they tell. At the Cleveland Public Library I found a photo that really caught my attention. Taken on August 18th 1915, the photograph shows Alice at her home, the Everett mansion on 4111 Euclid Ave, part of the famous Millionaires’ Row. The photographer who took the photo, George M. Edmondson, was a famous Cleveland photographer who was often commissioned to photograph members of Cleveland’s elite. His studio at 2362 Euclid Avenue was not far from the Everett home but Edmondson arrived in person to take the photo at Alice’s residence, maybe upon the request of Alice herself. While it was not uncommon for photographers to come to their patrons’ homes, especially if the client belonged to the social milieu as Alice did, this photograph, and its setting, is unique.

Whether she knew it or not, this was Alice’s last photograph. She would die six months later, on the 12th of February 1916, from a heart attack related to ovarian cancer, from which she suffered for 4 years. Her daughter, Ruth, recalled taking care of her mother: “I gave all my days to mother when she was taken sick, all my teenage days; daughters cared for their mothers. I was home from school for long periods of time.” Yet, this picture reflects nothing of the the pain and fatigue Alice must have felt.

Alice’s illness might explain why Edmondson took the picture at the house and not in his studio. The result is an informal portrait of Alice, carefully directed by Edmondson who was known for his artistic sense and skill of visual drama. The photograph, an exquisite setting of lights and darks, portrays Alice facing the camera, sitting at her desk, as if she is writing a letter, holding a pen in her right hand, while her left hand leaning against the chair. Her hair is tucked into a fashionable chignon, and she is dressed in an embroidered tea gown with a dark sash at the waist. The dress is with adherence to the period’s fashionable trend of high collar and tight, transparent sleeves. A pearl necklace, a gold bracelet, and a ring serve as her jewelry. The overall image, of a woman in her study, became in the early twentieth century a conventional image of the “Woman of Letters”—the intellectual woman writer or artistic laborer. The photograph is thus a photograph of serious woman, who wants to convey the view the pride in her profession. Alice’s tea gown, a semi-official dress that was often worn at home, also aided in the construction of the image of the Woman of Letters. As fashion historian Patricia Cunningham has noted in her book Reforming Women’s Fashions 1850-1920, tea gowns became the favored apparel for informal portraits because they suggested the comfort of the home and signaled the freedom of movement and mind. With fresh flowers on the table and her hand waiting to start writing, Alice looks like she is on her way to another day of work, of writing letters, stories, or poems.

From the little we know about Alice, she had a crave for learning. Her grandmother, Susan Fleming, mentions in her travel journal from 1870 that Alice was “the greatest reader for a child I think I ever knew.” Her father, who wanted his children to receive the best education they could, brought home the best tutors he could find for his children. Alice, together with her brother, and soon to be her sister-in-law, Ellen Garretson Wade, were taught Latin and Greek (Alice favored Virgil), Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Physics, English Literature, and various sciences. As a mother, Alice also insisted on good education for her children. However, married at the age of 20, to the neighbor 21 years her older, Alice never got to continue her education or to become a writer, an artist, or a Woman of Letters, as her portrait might suggest.

One might ask, why did Alice choose to be portrayed in this way? What this picture is trying to convey the viewer? An answer to these questions might be found in the photograph itself. A closer look reveals a small picture of a woman in the background. Although a bit blurred, it is easier to notice that Alice’s dress corresponds with the dress of the woman in the picture, and that the two women sits in the same position. So, who was the woman in the picture?

Examining photographs of the Everett house that are in the collection solved that mystery. In a photograph showing what is perhaps a suite of rooms a close up view of the mantel of the fireplace reveals two small photographs that seem to show a young Alice in almost the same pose she displays in the Edmondson photo from the Cleveland Public Library.

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The Study in the Everett House on Euclid Avenue

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Close-up Detail at the Fireplace Mantel

Indeed, the photograph of young Alice on the mantelpiece was probably moved by Edmondson or perhaps Alice to strengthen the composition as it appears here on the desk behind her. It might be that at the end of her life, Alice wanted to have a tribute to her younger self, to the aspirations she had to pursue a life of intellectual contemplation. While we can never be certain that this was indeed the case, Alice’s decision to present herself at the end of her life as a professional woman writer who is proud in her vocation, leaves a strong impression of the person she was and wanted to be. Drawing a visual connection between Alice and her younger self, not only tell us a story on an incredible woman but also show us, how much a photograph can tell.

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5 thoughts on “The Woman behind the Photo

  1. Ellen,

    I have some additional photos I just found of my grandmother, Alice Wade. Let me know where I can send them to you.

    Tom Story

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