A brush for your thoughts

This small tintype portrays an unusual subject for early photography: a standing woman appears poised to brush the hair of a seated woman, who has a comb and other items in her lap.  The standing woman is looking down and is slightly out of focus, while the seated woman is looking in the general direction of the camera and is well lit.  Our eyes are drawn first to her, then to her companion.

Tintypes are made from thin sheets of iron, rather than tin.  They were very popular in the United States in the late 1850s and 1860s, including during the Civil War (1861-65).  They were also made in later decades by itinerant photographers.  This is an early one, judging by the thickness of the metal (thicker=earlier) and by the style of the women’s dresses.  I’d guess it was made between 1856 and 1862.

The seated woman has three objects in her lap.  The object on the left appears to be a comb, but what are the other two?

Brushing hair (tintype) 2

Update, April 8: Here’s a detail image of the object which I assume to be a hairbrush:

Brushing hair (tintype) 4c



The oval line around the women indicates that the photo was kept in a frame or a case of some sort.  Given its small size–2.5 inches (6.35 cm) tall–my guess is that it was originally housed in a protective case that was easily carried in a pocket or purse.

I haven’t come across an image like this one before, so I’m not quite sure how to interpret it.  Was the seated woman the primary subject (sitter)?  What do you think the relationship was between the women?

Brushing hair (tintype) 3



38 thoughts on “A brush for your thoughts

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  1. A fascinating photo, indeed. The hair dresser looks very ethereal. Almost ghostly to me. There were some rather elaborate Victorian-era hair styles and ornaments. Some of the ornaments were woven from human hair. Maybe the circular item is a hair ornament.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. WIld guessing here, but the ladies look like sisters. The standing lady appears to be holding something in her hand (need to blow it up but I can’t) and I’m thinking maybe she’s about to perform a hair-do on the sitter, and the thing on the knee are to help with that. Probably barking up the wrong tree but it’s fun trying to work it out. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think you’re exactly right. The standing woman is holding a hairbrush, which I thought would be visible in the large image at the top, but not everyone is able to make it out. I should add a detail image of it to the post. Cheers, CJ! Brad

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yes. I absolutely think that the ladies are sisters. The standing lady is dressed too well and too similarly to the sitting one to be a lady’s maid. It does look as if she’s holding a brush. And I think that the larger of the two items in the sitter’s lap is some kind of device for arranging the hair with. (Our closest modern equivalent would probably be a “scrunchy.”). The smaller thing might be some kind of a clip? But I believe the picture is staged or posed. Both ladies’ hair is already beautifully coifed.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I sent the image to a costuming group I belong to, and somebody suggested the largest item could be a circular knitting loom; it does look similar to modern ones. The closest image I’ve found so far that’s period is for a round power loom: https://archive.org/details/treatiseonartofk00aike/page/30/mode/2up

    I have never seen a hair ornament that looked like this item, but I wonder if something like this could have been used underneath a hairstyle along these lines (though this photo is from a few decades later): https://cabinetcardgallery.com/2011/07/07/pretty-and-vivacious-young-woman-with-unusual-hairstyle-in-budapest-hungary/

    Combining the two ideas, hair accessories and knitting, I wonder if it might be some kind of “knitting” device used to make elaborate hair pieces. I haven’t found anything so far that looks just like that, but it’s an idea.

    So, I don’t know; just throwing out a few theories.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for visiting and commenting! I always enjoyed reading your comments on Matt’s excellent blog, “Pics of Then.” (I hope he starts blogging again.) Your thoughts about the round accessory on the woman’s lap gave me the idea that it might have been something she made herself. Your theories are really good! We probably can’t know for sure unless we see another one just like it.


      1. Aw, thanks! I never realized anybody read those (except Matt). BTW, another costumer points out today that there’s a bit of yarn (or something) connecting the loom-or-whatever-it-is to the dark tool in her lap in front of it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, that’s interesting! I speculated in a comment below that there might be two needles or pins lying across the loom-thing, but they don’t quite look like needles, and I wondered if they might just be flaws in the photo. They could be yarn!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree with the others that they’re likely sisters, based not only on dress style but also facial structure (cheeks, foreheads, mouths, eyebrows, hair color and style). Given the rarity of photographs then, I doubt a servant (maid) would have been included in such an intimate photo. I imagine sisters/close relatives often helped each other with daily attire and grooming in those times. No idea on the items in the lap of the one sitting.

    Fascinating photo! Love these mysteries you present!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All excellent points, Rebecca. Daily attire and grooming were probably quite a chore in those days. Some mysteries are a lot more fun to present to others than to try to figure out myself. I wouldn’t have any idea where to start when it comes to women’s hair!


  6. I agree that they’re probably sisters. I feel certain the round thing in her lap is a bun form, and the flat, straight object also is used to create a hairdo, rather than being a comb. Both of those items still are used today; you can see photos of both here. The materials used today are different, but the process is the same. It’s a great photo. I especially like the look of amusement on the sitting woman’s face.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that makes sense about the straight flat object! There may also be two needles or pins lying across the bun form, which I didn’t mention in the post because they’re hard to see. (Some readers have had a hard time making out the hairbrush, which I thought was clear enough without enlargement.) I’m glad you like the woman’s expression. A smile of any kind is rare in an early image, so I can’t help but think they were enjoying themselves!


  7. I too think they are sisters. There is some facial similarity especially around the mouth, but it’s the intimacy of the portrait that makes me think that. It’s quite compelling. I actually find this image a bit spooky, there is something so intense and ethereal about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s definitely a little spooky! In a good way. (I can imagine artists today trying to recreate the same effects.) And I completely agree that the intimacy of the scene tells us the women were close in real life. They wanted to be remembered together, and they succeeded….


  8. The photo looks like a painting, very artistically done. Their dresses are of the same style, so I guess they’re friends or sisters. The background looks quite mysterious, seems to be a black hole…
    The standing woman has a more subtle and sophisticated expression, as if she’s in deep thoughts. A faint smile can also be traced.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you mentioned the standing woman, as she seems to be disappearing into the darkness. It’s just an accidental effect created by the early camera lens and the tintype developing process, but it makes her seem almost ghost-like, like a companion spirit. Thank you for sharing your impressions, Isabelle!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. It’s definitely posed. The round ruffled thing on the seated woman’s lap looks to me like a neck-ruff. It could also be something for the hair but I suspect not. An alternative is it – like the other two items on her lap (which I can’t make out properly) are just props.

    I think they’re either sisters, or the standing woman is the other’s mother. She does look older.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I see a portrait posed in an unusual way, I always wonder: whose idea was it? 😃 In this case I wondered whether the objects might have been suggested by the photographer. I doubt it, though, given how unusual they are. Stay well, Val!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It’s interesting the objects are displayed so prominently, as if they want someone to remember them as an important aspect of their lives. I entered “antique round finger looms” into my search engine and found several. This one however looks reversible, perhaps to enable two different patterns? Fascinating…

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I also find the image a bit spooky and the look in her eyes, they are captivating and a bit unsettling at the same time. It reminds me of the hair brushing scene in the movie, “The Ring” and that movie scare the hell out of me! I do enjoy a good scary movie though 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think the standing woman is holding a hand mirror. She is holding it with two hands which would be odd for a brush. It would also explain its position in front of the sitter’s face. The items on the sitter’s lap could be related to hair dressing. They could also be generally related to the idea of vanity.

    The intended recipient could have been a betrothed or husband who was far away. I doubt this was for general display.

    There’s a lot more to this photograph than we can understand. It’s highly enigmatic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Emma! I’ve just added a detail image of the object to the post. You could certainly be right about it being a mirror, but I still lean toward a brush. One clue might be the size of the handle, which is very slender. I haven’t researched brush handles vs. mirror handles in the 1850s.

      I like your idea that the photo might have been sent to someone far away, or perhaps given to someone who was going away. That adds to the mystery!


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