Photographs are particularly rich with all sorts of historical clues about what life was like in an earlier era. Since the daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of Civil War battlefields when photojournalists published some of the first images that broke away from the static “painterly” format of early photography, we’ve been poring over them with magnifying lenses and insatiable, gnawing curiosity. We look for signs that these captured people dressed, ate, slept, loved, worked, and played like us- or something like it, at least. We look to see that they are connected to us, somehow; that we understand their purposes and ambitions, and through a patch on a skirt, the jaunty grin of a picket fence, and a bead of sweat easing down a stevedore’s face, we see through the film of time and distance that they are indeed human, after all. Often, too, we see that not so much has changed.
This image, entitled “Hut of Oyster Fisherman, Chesapeake Bay near Sherwood, MD USA” is a stereoscope card produced in 1905, and it comes from the photography collections of the Library of Congress (source). Made to fit into a 19th century stereoscope device that was held up to the viewer’s face and pointed at a source of light, the effect produced was one of a three-dimensional “real” view.
The picture of the Sherwood waterman would have been one of a series purchased by theme- you could buy shots of Yellowstone National Park, Niagara Falls, scenes of orchards or vistas of cities or lakes. Some stereoscope images were topical- like a stranded U boat from World War I. Others were comical, or even risque (but very tamely so). The Chesapeake series would have been the sort that illuminated a picturesque landscape, peppered with rustic shots of working class people like our oysterman. Members of the burgeoning middle classes could have enjoyed an evening of diversion looking at pictures like these, popping out into vivid relief and providing a contrast to their own overstuffed, over-draped interiors.
It’s autumn in this image. Two women chat with the oysterman of the description. But he isn’t oystering today- he’s hunting. Shotgun slung over his shoulder, our oysterman has probably returned from a morning spent hunting waterfowl on an usually warm fall day. In the distance, a fleet of waiting log canoes are moored in in Waterhole Cove. It’s not a work day, or they would all be out, plying their trade on the Miles River or the Bay. But instead, the furled sails and their waiting canoes are floating like dried leaves on the slight chop of the inlet. It’s probably a Sunday, a day for watermen to go to church with their families and eat a big, hot dinner at home, or plunge into the marshes like their counterparts in other fishing villages like Wittman, Bozman, McDaniel, and Bellevue to see what the tide and wind would bring.
Small communities of African-American watermen, their wives, and families clustered in protected coves like this one throughout the Chesapeake. After Emancipation, many African-American men found steady work on the water, where the pay for your catch was the same for everyone, regardless of race. It was hard work and a life with no luxuries, as we can see by the size and state of the small dwelling clinging to the ramshackle waterfront. But many of the Bay’s riches were free, and there for the taking, if you had a boat and some know-how. The waterways pulsed with life, the air filled seasonally with the cries of dinner on the wing, and for these people, it all sat there at their doorstep.
Back in a gaslit apartment building in Baltimore, a woman lowered the stereoscope from her face and sighed for a life that seemed so far away. And her modern counterpart looks away from her computer to the harbor of St Michaels and thinks that it all hasn’t changed, so much.