Maples, Litchfield Road, Norfolk, Connecticut. Photograph by Marie Kendall, 1898. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1981.58.6
Winter isn’t over yet. Historically, some of the worst winter storms have happened between the end of February and the end of March. The Blizzard of 1888 took place March 11-14th. The Great Ice Storm of 1898 took place on February 20-22nd. Looking at pictures of these historic storms reminds us that giant piles of snow and ice-shattered trees have been regular features of winter in New England. People didn’t have it quite so bad in the old days, however. Everyone in the late nineteenth century had fireplaces, wood stoves, and/or coal furnaces. Few people had electricity, especially in rural areas. Light was provided by kerosene, candles, or gas. Though suburbanization was beginning to affect some of the larger cities, few people commuted very far to work in northwest Connecticut, where the Ice Storm hit hardest. Grocery shopping was not the almost daily activity that it is today, and most families would have had well-stocked pantries, including foods that they had processed themselves. Many families would have had their own chickens or cows. Deep snow and ice posed dangers and hardships, of course, but our ancestors were used to a hard life. A great blizzard or ice storm was an opportunity for families to spend time together indoors, gathered around the fireplace. I’ve always thought that many of the people in the pictures of the Blizzard of 1888 look like they are having a very good time. Marie Kendall recorded the beauty as well as the devastation wrought by the Great Ice Storm. Our reliance on technology and modern conveniences has made us far more vulnerable to nature’s extremes than our ancestors were.
Marie Kendall’s photographs of the Great Ice Storm will be on view through March 29th in the exhibition, Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographs.
Sarah Bishop’s Cave. Photograph by Marie Kendall, ca. 1900. The Connecticut Historical Society, 2000.178.180
A photograph by Marie Kendall in the current exhibition at the Connecticut Historical Society depicts Sarah Bishop’s Cave, a hollow in the rocks overlooking a deep valley on West Mountain in Ridgefield, Connecticut. Who was Sarah Bishop and what was she doing in this cave? According to historian Samuel Goodrich, who remembered meeting Sarah in his youth, she was a female hermit, who took refuge in the cave during the American Revolution and spent the remainder of her life as a recluse on the mountain, surviving on roots and berries and the charity of the inhabitants of Ridgefield. Goodrich recalled her as “a thin, ghostly old woman, bent and wrinkled.” She died about 1810 or 1811. In the late nineteenth century, the cave was something of a tourist attraction. The lovely young woman shown peering into it in Kendall’s photograph was the photographer’s daughter. Kendall was a professional photographer who sold her photographs to summer residents and tourists in her native Norfolk, who presumably would have been familiar with Sarah’s story.
Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers will remain on view at the Connecticut Historical Society through March 29, 2014. An illustrated booklet is available for purchase.
Side view of John Watson House, East Windsor. Photograph by Edith S. Watson. The Connecticut Historical Society.
Last week the Connecticut Historical Society opened an exhibition celebrating the achievement of three Connecticut women photographers. Of course, Marie Kendall, Harriet Thorne, and Rollie McKenna weren’t the only women to take photographs in Connecticut. Another woman photographer, who is not well- represented in our collections, but who has always fascinated me, is Edith Watson of East Windsor. Edith (1861-1943) was roughly contemporary with Marie and Harriet. She was an adventurous traveler, who visited Mexico and the Caribbean and traveled up and down the eastern seaboard. Her best-known photographs document rural life in Canada, especially Newfoundland and Labrador. Her work was published in the New York Times, the Toronto Star, and the Newfoundland Quarterly. She always insisted upon receiving a credit line, so it seems surprising that her photographer’s stamp, “EDITH S. WATSON / EAST WINDSOR HILL / CONN.” appears on only one photograph in the CHS collection, a side view of the Watson House in East Windsor Hill. It seems likely that she may also have taken some of the other photographs of the house, which were given to CHS by her sister Amelia, a talented watercolor artist. Although Edith’s photograph was probably part of a series of views taken to document the appearance of the house, the photograph is artfully composed; the shadows of the trees in the foreground take up as much space as the house itself. The John Watson house, on Main Street, East Windsor Hill, was built in 1788-1789 for a wealthy merchant. Edith and Amelia, who were both fascinated by genealogy, would have been well aware of its history.
Our newest exhibit, “Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers”, will be open October 11, 2013 – March 29, 2014. That’s next week! You’ve got 5 months to check it out, but please tell me why you would wait. You might think you have time to roll in some lazy Saturday afternoon in the hazy near-future, but have you already forgotten the snow-mountain blizzard of February 2013? The tree-attack ice storm of October 2011? This is New England, people. It’s October. Get out while you can. (And I don’t mean move to Arizona. Or maybe I do.)
Hurricane of 1893, Bridgeport, Connecticut. Photograph by Harriet V.S. Thorne. Okay, not a blizzard, but it’s a hurricane for pete’s sake, and it could have been winter.
Blizzard of 1898, Norfolk, Connecticut. Photograph by Marie Kendall.
Winter storm of 1977, Mystic, Connecticut. Photograph by Rosalie Thorne McKenna.
These three Connecticut women knew photography and they knew storms. Marie Kendall and Harriet Thorne hauled heavy tripods and viewfinders before you had a cell phone. Rosalie McKenna developed film before you could annoy your friends with social media. They came from different times and different places, but like all of us hardy (resigned) New England folk, when the snow started flyin’ they strapped on their boots and started snappin’.
Blizzard of February 2013, Bristol, Connecticut. Photograph by a five-year old female photographer from the top of a snow mountain created by an ineffective, rusty old snow blower that almost ran over her dad.
Ben Gammell is the Coordinator of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society