Miniature brass locket with 12 albumen print portraits of Tom Thumb & Lavinia Warren (1863) (all images courtesy the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, © New York Public Library)
Social sharing of photography was prolific long before Instagram, even if it took a different form, such as brass lockets shaped as suitcases to carry portraits of the most celebrated miniature wedding of the 19th-century.
The marriage on February 10, 1863 of General Tom Thumb, born Charles Sherwood Stratton, to Lavinia Warren, had P. T. Barnum frothing at the potential for commercialization. Both Tom Thumb and Warren were human oddity performers at Barnum’s American Museum. Already exploited for their unusual stature — both were under three feet tall — Barnum saw another opportunity to make their union part of the circus.
A fold-out locket of 12 of their tiny albumen wedding prints is currently on-view at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue as part of Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography. The exhibition has over 500 images from the NYPL collections divided by themes including photosharing, such as an Ansel Adams coffee can; streetview, including Eadweard Muybridge’s San Francisco panorama; and crowdsourcing, with the September 11 Photo Project. The Tom Thumb wedding album is one of the NYPL’s recent acquisitions, and certainly qualifies for an exhibition on the “public eye” of photography.
As Kara Fiedorek wrote on the NYPL blog last October:
“Grand” is perhaps an understatement for this so-called Fairy Wedding. Cartes de visite (small photographs pasted onto slightly larger cards) of the couple sold in the hundreds of thousands in the mid-1860s. Barnum pleaded with Tom Thumb to delay the wedding by a number of months in order to reap as many financial rewards from the huge public excitement as possible. On the wedding day, roads were blocked as thousands of onlookers waited outside the church on Broadway and 10th Street to witness the couple’s arrival in a miniature horse-drawn chariot, a gift from Queen Victoria.
The 1863 wedding in Manhattan’s Grace Episcopal Church was also a unifying distraction from the ongoing violence of the Civil War. The delicate album, its front labeled “Somebody’s Luggage,” was likely the property of a stranger not a friend of the bride or the groom. And as such it’s a somber emblem of what it meant to be a living curiosity in the 19th century, and how photography shared the spectacles of a nation.
Tom Thumb’s wedding album is on view in “Public Eye: 175 Years of Sharing Photography” at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building through September 4, 2015.
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