Monday, August 15, 2016

An overlooked detail in an historic Kerr County photograph

Potter, Joshua, and Sarah Brown, around 1873,
though I think it's closer to 1875.
There is a detail in one of the historic photographs in my collection that few notice.
The photograph, of Joshua, Sarah, and young Potter Brown, is currently on display at the Museum of Western Art. That exhibit runs through August 27.
Joshua D. Brown was the founder of Kerrville, coming here in the late 1840s to harvest the cypress trees along the river to make shingles. Sarah Goss Brown was his second wife; his first, Eleanor Smith Brown, died in 1848, about the same time Brown was establishing his shingle making camp here. One daughter was born in Brown's first marriage, a daughter named Mary Louisa. Seven children were born in his marriage to Sarah Goss Brown, four sons and three daughters. Alonzo Potter Brown, the youngest son, is in the photograph.
The original image of Joshua, Sarah, and Potter Brown was a tintype taken around 1873, and I received a scan of the original tintype from a descendent of the Browns, Jan Wilkinson. While I have seen copies of this image many times, mostly in commemorative newspaper issues, the image on display at the Museum of Western Art is a scan from the original tintype. It is the best reproduction of the photograph I have ever seen.
Tintypes were very popular in the 1860s and 1870s, partly because they were inexpensive to produce, and partly because they could be handed to the customer moments after the image was taken. Many tintypes were taken by itinerant photographers, often at fairs or carnivals.
One drawback to tintypes was the long exposure time required. One had to sit very, very still for a long time. In the photograph of the Brown family, it appears young Potter Brown could not stay still that long. His face is slightly blurred. Joshua's face is blurred, but less than Potter's. Joshua was sitting next to his son. Perhaps Joshua moved slightly trying to keep Potter still.
The only one who stayed still through the photograph is Sarah Goss Brown. Her blue eyes gaze clearly at the camera, and she has a slight smile on her face, as if she is just about to laugh out loud, but trying very hard not to do so. Her left hand is clenched in a fist.
The family is well-dressed in the photo. Young Potter is in a fine suit with a large collar; Joshua wears a jacket, vest, and slacks; Sarah wears a very detailed dress with a wide belt that has a shiny buckle, and a long skirt beneath that. They are wearing fine clothes, especially fine considering Kerr County was the edge of the frontier when the image was taken. Either the Brown family was at an event which required them to dress up a bit, or they had an appointment with a photographer and dressed for the image.
I'd suggest it was the latter, since the photograph has been tinted slightly. Rouge has been applied to Sarah's cheeks, and a slight touch of red to Joshua's, as well. The flower Sarah is wearing has been tinted yellow. I don't think a street photographer would have gone to the trouble to add these colors.
In 1873 none of the buildings in today's downtown Kerrville existed. The oldest building in downtown Kerrville, at 709 Water Street, is now the home of Hill Country Living. It wasn't built until 1874, a year after the photograph was taken. A portion of the home of Charles Schreiner's family, on Earl Garrett Street, was built in 1879. Other older buildings in the downtown area came along much later, many of them in 1890.
When the Browns had their photograph taken, there was no railroad to Kerrville; that came in 1887. When the photograph was taken there were few, if any, structures we'd recognize. The town would be an unexplored mystery to us.
But there is one detail in the photograph I find particularly interesting, in part because it reveals something about Joshua and Sarah Brown, and in part because of all the tintype portraits I've seen from that period, this is the only image which shows this detail.
In the photograph, Sarah and Joshua are holding hands. Her right hand rests comfortably on his left hand, as if it often found its way there.
I hope you'll see for yourself -- the photograph will be on display until August 27th at the Museum of Western Art.
Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who collects historic photographs and artifacts of Kerrville and Kerr County.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times August 13, 2016

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