Young harpist in New Bedford

This cabinet card portrait was made at a studio in the port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts.  The studio belonged to a man named John O’Neil.  Google didn’t turn up any information about Mr. O’Neil, so I looked at census records on Ancestry.  In the 1880 U.S. Census, I found a John E. O’Neil, age 19, whose occupation was “Picture Gallery.”  He was living with his mother Eliza (widowed), three brothers and two sisters.  John and his younger brother were born in Massachusetts, while their parents and four older siblings were born in Ireland.  John’s oldest sibling, Thomas F. (age 28), was occupied by “Work in Shoe Factory.”  The second-oldest, Patrick J. (age 26), was a “Mariner.”  Their sisters, Katy E. (age 23) and Mary E. (age 21), were both “At Home.”  The youngest child, William H. (age 17), was “At School.”

I then found the family in the 1870 Census, once again without the father listed, but in this case the mother’s marital status wasn’t listed.  Her occupation was “Keeping House,” from which I would infer that her husband was still alive.  Perhaps he was at sea?

Returning to the portrait, the young harpist isn’t identified.  I wonder if we can tell anything about her from her outfit?  In the nineteenth century, New Bedford’s maritime and textile industries attracted waves of immigrants from Ireland, Portugal and Poland.  Her outfit could have been inspired by one particular culture, or by a combination of cultures.

Young harpist in New Bedford by O'Neil 2


On a side note, in 1897, while visiting his grandfather Warren Delano II in nearby Fairhaven, fifteen-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped into John O’Neil’s studio:

Franklin D. Roosevelt, FDR Presidential Library & Museum 1
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1897. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Image in the public domain (ID 47965).

(You can read about FDR’s connections to Fairhaven and New Bedford in this article by local historian Peggi Medeiros.)


In July 2017, when this blog was only three months old, I shared another cabinet card by John O’Neil.  That portrait of a group of young women in Classical costume can be seen in the post In Costume in New Bedford.


49 thoughts on “Young harpist in New Bedford

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    1. I hadn’t thought about her that way, but you’re right. She seems very natural, as opposed to the Gibson Girl look that became popular in the 1890s. I think this was taken a little earlier, although I don’t know for sure.


    1. My guess would be that he was apprenticing with another photographer at 19. Coming from what seems like a humble family background, I can’t see how he could have afforded his own studio at such a young age. He was certainly an enterprising person and a successful entrepreneur!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Her dress appears to be very thick velvet which I’d love to see in color! The sheer amount of leaves, vines and flowers carved or printed on almost everything in this studio setting is astounding. I’m surprised his studio isn’t listed elsewhere as of historical interest, especially since he photographed FDR as a youth. It’s a lovely photograph, so clear but ornate.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I absolutely love her dress. And I’m also surprised there isn’t more information about O’Neil’s studio online. If he was a photographer for roughly twenty years (1880-1900), he would have interacted with many of the city’s residents, not to mention visitors like young Franklin.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Such a lovely photo. She looks lost in thought. I wonder what she was thinking about. That John O’Neil was only 19 and owned his own photography studio is quite an accomplishment. And photographing a future president is an interesting coincidence.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I suspect O’Neil was apprenticing with another photographer at 19, because that was how most young people got their start. This photo was probably taken about ten years later. She doesn’t exactly look enthusiastic, does she? I bet the whole thing was her mother’s idea!


  3. I love this image and the whole fascinating post! The subject of the portrait does look very modern, as Stephen noted above. Do you think the harp could have been a studio prop? I’d love to think that she is a harpist.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I love her dress and shoes. Is that some sort of clip or broach at the neck, maybe matching her earrings, or part of the pattern of the material?

    The style of the dress suggests (to me) a traditional folk costume. Given she’s posing with a harp, might she and the costume be Irish? I guess we can’t assume she actually played the harp; it might only be a prop.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. When I first saw this photo, I thought she might be Portuguese, but without any evidence to support that idea, Irish seems more likely. The pin or brooch at her neck is a very common form, so it doesn’t provide any clues. When I looked closely just now, I noticed she’s wearing a ring on her left ring finger (!). Could she possibly be old enough to be engaged? She looks like she’s about twelve to me.


  5. Thanks for another well-researched post, Brad! I wonder if she was a harpist or she deliberately chose the harp as her companion specifically for posing for this photo…I also appreciate your posting of the picture of the young Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A harp would be a very unusual prop, so it might have been brought in just for this photo shoot. My guess is that she was at least learning how to play it. That said, she doesn’t seem very enthusiastic about posing, does she? I bet the whole thing was her mother’s idea, or maybe her grandmother’s. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. She doesn’t look particularly enthusiastic but I have a feeling that many people often look solemn on those old pictures. It seems expressing ones emotions wasn’t encouraged at the time. Have a lovey weekend! 😊

        Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve had just one velvet dress in my life, and there’s no mistaking that fabric. The ‘velveteen’ that became popular because of its lesser cost is very nice, but it can’t compare. I suspect the harp might have been a studio prop. If not, it would have required enormous effort to get it to the studio for the portrait. Of course, she did have brothers to help.

    In the 19th century, New Bedford was a preeminent whaling port, so it makes sense that the father could have been at sea; that sea-faring son might have been a whaler, too. It’s fun to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, the father could have been a whaler, although the industry began to decline just when the O’Neils arrived in New Bedford. They must have arrived between 1857 and 1861, because a daughter (Mary E.) was born in Ireland around 1857 or 1858, and John was born in Massachusetts around 1861. I’d be very curious to know about the father. I can’t imagine the family would have come over from Ireland without him, although anything is possible, I suppose.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. She’s a beautiful young woman, so graceful. She looks assured and at ease with the harp. This may be wishful thinking but I lean towards the harp being hers. It is a large and specific type of item that would take a lot of space for a photographer to keep on hand as a prop that wouldn’t have a universal appeal to it. I love her sweet ballet type slippers and her stance. She looks very at ease. A wonderful post Brad ☺️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A harp would also require a big investment for a prop that might not be used much. For that reason and the ones you mentioned, I think it belonged to her family. How old do you think she was? I was thinking 11-12, but now I wonder if she might have been a little older.

      Thank you for your kind comments, Suzanne!


  8. She looks about 13-14 to me (she has a slight bust, so unlikely to be younger). The ring might be an engagement ring – even at that age – but my guess is she’s just wearing it on that finger because she wants to! I thought at first it was a national costume, but now I don’t think so. All assuming the harp isn’t just a prop, maybe she was a child prodigy and had just done a recital in her best clothes?

    I’m using a new email by the way, just for commenting, as wordpress still haven’t released my usual one. Hope you’re well!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I concur with your analysis, Val. As pretty as her dress is, it isn’t quite elaborate enough to be a national costume. And why not wear a ring on that finger if she wanted to? It might raise a few eyebrows, but so what. I suppose there’s also the possibility that in her culture, the engagement ring was worn on the right hand?


  9. A very cool photo. Yes, he could have apprenticed to an established photographer. If he was a photographer for a long time period, perhaps he had an arrangement where he would take over the business from the one he learned the trade from. Love the dress on the lady, it makes you wonder the origin. Not sure a photographer would have a harp as a prop, but maybe Val is right and that is a recital photo. Another avenue of research would be child harpists in that area.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. It’s a really lovely photo, really sharp and clear and her expression is captivating! I think the harp was hers not a prop, as you say it would be a very expensive prop and it looks correctly strung to me. Her dress has short sleeves which gives her freedom to move her arms without cuff and fabric getting in the way. So I’m going with the theory that she was a virtuoso performer posing for a photograph before her sell-out tour!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s an excellent point about her sleeves! Now that I think about it, teenage girls wore long-sleeved dresses in formal portraits throughout the 19th century, so a short-sleeved dress was very unusual and significant. I hope her tour was a success! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. What an amazing photo! The room is like the room of a master or a famous musician. My first thought was that this photograph was more for a harp than for a young beautiful lady. We see all the details of the harp. The girl looks like a German. I might be wrong, of course. Her pose is a little relaxed. Maybe she is the daughter of a master or musician. Her short sleeves and cropped dress are comfortable for playing the harp. The ring is most likely a piece of jewelry. I found the same harp on the internet:

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You found a nice harp! That one was made in 1818, so it’s quite old. The decorations are a bit different than this one. Now you’ve made me want to search for more! The one in this photo was almost certainly European. You may be right that the photo was as much a harp portrait as a portrait of the young lady. If I find out more, I’ll let you know! 🙂


  12. Très intéressante recherche . je pensais aussi que cette jeune fille était portugaise . Elle est très jeune peut-être fiancée car à cette époque les gens se mariaient jeunes , l’espérance de vie était plus courte que maintenant .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your point about life expectancy is a very good one. When researching portraits, I often discover that the subject of the photo died young. Or, the subject had a child who died young…. The decision to marry at a young age makes a lot more sense in such circumstances.

      Merci, Pierrette! Enjoy your winter adventures!


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