A Southern Photo Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

Cornelius Webbedit.jpg

The story of a photograph is so much more than its simple details. This is a carte de visite (CDV) image. The mounted size of a CDV is 2.125 x 3.5 inches. The slight oval shadow on this picture signifies it was once in an album.

When confronted with a photographic album, read it front to back, studying the placement of the images. Who’s in the first position? That’s the most important person to the individual who created the album.

In this case, the photo is out of the context of the album.

The photographer’s studio is typical for the 1860s. There’s a patterned oilcloth on the floor, a plain backdrop, a single drape and a paisley table covering. The studio has given the image a slight tint and added a bit of color to the man’s cheeks.

He wears a sack coat, a shawl-collared vest, a long necktie and loose trousers than narrow at the ankle. At his feet is either the base of the table or a photographer’s posing device. The facial hair is typical for the late 1860s.

Stephen Taylor owns this image. He’s hoping it depicts his great-great-grandfather Cornelius Webb. Born in Philadelphia in 1836 to unidentified parents, Cornelius married an Irish immigrant, Mary M. Kennedy, in Charleston, SC in 1859.

The 1860 Federal Census for Charleston lists the young couple living in a boarding house in the third ward (Heritage Quest Online, National Archives film M653, roll 1216, page 252, line 9). He was a tin smith and his personal estate was worth $500.

Most tin smiths served an apprenticeship of four to six years, then started their own business. It is unclear whether Cornelius actually manufactured goods or just sold them. The term tin smith referred to either. There were merchants in Charleston with the last name of Webb, but more research is needed to determine if Cornelius was one of them.

According to the Frederick Ford’s Census of the City of Charleston, 1861 (Charleston, 1861), Cornelius lives in a brick house at 123 Church Street, in the third ward. The Charleston Gaslight Co. owned the building. A quick search on Google maps shows that the house (as long as street numbering didn’t change) no longer stands. Looking at the street view provides an indication of what it might have resembled.

Could this be Cornelius Webb? It seems pretty likely. He died in 1869 at 33 years of age, leaving behind five small children, including one born that year.

He would have posed for this image between his arrival in the city circa 1859 and his death a decade later. Harvey Teal’s book, Partners with the Sun: South Carolina Photographers 1840 -1940 (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2001) documents five photographers who operated studios in Charleston prior to the Civil War. During the conflict, the Confederate government’s Tax Act, levied a tax of $50 a year on anyone operating as a photographer (Charleston Mercury, May 9, 1863, page 1). After the war, several new studios opened. Most operated studios on King Street.

The presence of a photographer’s imprint on this portrait would help narrow the time frame. Teal’s book lists specific dates for photographers.

The man in this image appears prosperous. He’s posing clasping his coat at the lapels, a sign of pride. This man appears older than his early 20s, so if this is Webb, it’s likely he posed after the Civil War when he was in his late 20s or early 30s.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album