I’m estimating the photo could’ve been taken before or after Martha’s father died—the puffed shoulder seams date the picture to the early 1890s.
It’s a classic example of a family milestone photo. Tragic events often pushed people into studios to capture images of their remaining loved ones or even the deceased. Read more about postmortem pictures in my column Dead Men Tell No Tales.
When Bell asked me about a date for the portrait, he also inquired about the photographer, Orris Hunt. I wrote about two other Hunt pictures in a column several years ago, Which one is Real?. When that picture was taken after 1905, Hunt was in St. Paul, Minn., having recently purchased another photographer’s studio.
The imprint in the lower left of Bell’s picture identifies Hunt as traveling photographer. Hunt’s Palace RR Photo Car was actually a photo studio in a railroad car. Whenever and wherever the train stopped, Hunt opened his studio to residents of the area.
Martha Bell took advantage of one of these rail stops in her hometown in Floyd County, Ga. Perhaps after a decade or more of endless traveling, Hunt decided to settle down in a St. Paul studio. That’s when he took the photo of the young man in the earlier column.
Hunt wasn’t the only railroad photographer in 19th- and early 20th-century America. Any time you see an imprint with RR as part of the address, you’ve found another one. Then, railroads were what planes are today. They crisscrossed the country bringing goods and services—including photographers—to folks in far-off places.
Bell’s photo has an interesting past. Not only was it taken for a specific reason, but now he knows he had a patient relative: She had to wait for the next train with Hunt aboard to have her picture taken.