Photo albums, once a household staple, are quickly becoming obsolete in the era of digital photos. But on March 30, 2017, an old photo album came up for auction at Swann Auction Galleries, an auction house specializing in rare and antiquarian books. It had been predicted to fetch between $20,000 and $30,000. When the final hammer fell, it had sold for more than five times as much.
There’s a good reason the album, which held a few dozen cheaply produced black-and-white photos, went for $161,000. It contained a never-before-seen photo of one of history’s greatest opponents of slavery, Harriet Tubman.
It’s an image of Tubman that hasn’t been seen for 150 years: a photo taken by Benjamin F. Powelson in 1868 or 1869, when Tubman was between 48 and 49 years old. And Tubman’s isn’t the only famous face in the album. Charles Dickens, P.T. Barnum’s star Tom Thumb, future Empress of Russia Maria Feodorovna, and first African American Congressman John Willis Menard are carefully arranged between the album’s aged covers.
What was Tubman’s picture doing in such an eclectic photo album? Did the owner actually know these famous authors, performers, royals, and activists?
The key to understanding the album and the photos it contains lies in a 19th-century fad known as the carte de visite craze.
Photography in its infancy was expensive, time-consuming, and difficult. If you had your picture taken, you tended to hang onto it. Then, in 1854, a new patent changed everything. By using a four-lensed camera to create eight small negatives on a single plate, photographers could now churn out multiple copies of a picture with a single snap of the camera. Where once a customer would walk away with a single image, now they could buy numerous small photos mounted on cards roughly the size of a modern index card.
People started handing out these photos, called cartes de visite or “visiting cards,” on birthdays and began trading them during the holidays. The cards quickly went from a minor novelty to a huge fad in 1859 when Emperor Napoleon III’s carte de visite hit the streets, and their popularity continued to grow throughout the 1860s. People amassed so many cartes de visite, in fact, that special albums began to be produced to store and show off the collections.
Cartes de visite weren’t just the baseball cards of their day. They were also a vital tool used to advocate for the abolition of slavery. Sojourner Truth sold copies of her carte de visite as a fundraising tool, and photographer Mathew Brady produced shocking images of the scars borne by a slave named Gordon that could be shown to those who doubted the violence of slavery.
And that’s where the album that contained the long-lost photo of Harriet Tubman comes in. According to the auction house, the photo album, which was really a carte de visite album, was once owned by a Quaker schoolteacher and anti-slavery activist named Emily Howland, who lived from 1827 to 1929. The album was a New Year’s Day gift from a friend and co-worker, with whom she worked at Camp Todd, a school for freed slaves located on Robert E. Lee’s estate in Arlington, Virginia.
Howland was the daughter of two abolitionists and started her own anti-slavery work when she was just 17. When she was 30, she began her career as a schoolteacher at Myrtilla Miner’s School for Economically Stable Black Females in Washington. By 1864, when she was given the carte de visite album, she had been working at Camp Todd for more than a year.
So … did Howland personally know all those famous people whose photos she collected? Probably not, but she did know Harriet Tubman. The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which acquired album in conjunction with the Library of Congress, found evidence that Howland lived in the same town as Tubman during the time that the carte de visite photo was taken. Not only that, Howland and Tubman were neighbors and friends.
The album is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., but you can take a look at all the photos here. It’s the age of digital photography, after all.
Time to go dig up your family’s old photo albums. Who knows what you’ll find inside?