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Ambrotype of an African-American boy with a German concertina (anonymous photographer), c. 1861
A very rare and intriguing historic photograph!
Ambrotype of an African-American boy with a German concertina (anonymous photographer), c. 1861, ninth plate, American. , with black Union Case.
This ambrotype is exceedingly rare and intriguing on three counts: the sitter is a young African-American boy; he's playing a German concertina; and the ambrotype's Union case has a manufacturer's label in it.
First, let's look at the sitter. Needless to say, extant photographic portraits of African-Americans from this period are not easy to come by. Rarer still is one of a child with a musical instrument.
The lad appears to be between 10 and 13 years of age. He's neatly dressed, wearing a straight-cut jacket with silver buttons, which is only partially buttoned in accordance with men's fashion of the day. Our sitter sports a very fancy silk cravat edged in fringe. On the small table to his left sits our lad's high-crowned leather cap with a plain hat band and a tooled-border visor. It appears to be civilian type headwear rather than a military kepi or forage cap.
As for his instrument, the "Deutsche Konzertina" (German concertina), it was first manufactured in 1834 by Carl Friedrich Uhlig in the town of Chemnitz, Germany… hence it's other common name, the "Chemnitzer Konzertina." Unlike its contemporary, Sir Charles Wheatstone's fully chromatic English concertina (developed around 1830 but not patented until 1844), Uhlig's konzertina was a diatonic instrument that worked on a "push-pull" system similar to that of early accordions like the flutina and the latter button accordion. In this system, each melody button produces two different notes-- one note when the bellows are "pushed" in and a different one when the bellows are "pulled out." Whereas the English concertina had a distinctive hexagonal body and up to forty eight melody buttons, the early German concertina was square and typically had five to ten melody buttons on either side, with the bass notes on the left hand and the treble notes on the right.
The differences between the two instruments went far beyond issues of playing systems and structure. The English concertina was a fine, expensive instrument designed to play "serious" music. It was found primarily in the parlors and music rooms of the Upper Crust, as well as on the "legitimate" concert stage. By contrast the early German konzertina was an affordable instrument of "the people." Its low cost, compact size and easy playability made it a favorite of sailors, farm hands and "mechanics" (skilled laborers).
One more thing to consider about this image: the early German konzertina is rarely seen in period photographs. The types of concertinas most often depicted are the English or the Anglo-German varieties. The Anglo-German concertina was first produced by English maker George Jones, sometime in the 1850s. It's basically a souped-up German diatonic "push-pull" system housed in an English hexagonal body. Nowadays, the "Anglo" is the concertina of choice for Irish, English and Welsh traditional music.
Finally, we have the ambrotype's "Union Case." In 1853, Samuel Peck, in partnership with the Scovill Manufacturing Company (a leading photographic supply house based in New York City) first introduced the molded thermoplastic miniature case for daguerreotypes, which Peck dubbed the "Union Case." Shortly after Peck's thermoplastic case hit the market, other manufacturers came out with their own versions of the Union case. These cases were made in variety of forms, depicting in relief everything from classic floral scenes to dancing girls in risqué costumes. Patriotic themes were especially popular featuring images of great American leaders like George Washington and Henry Clay and scenes from American history such as the midnight ride of Paul Revere.
A major rival of Peck and the Scovill Brothers firm in the manufacture of Union cases was Alfred P. Critchlow. In 1857, Critchlow sold his business and it became "Littlefield, Parsons & Company," the firm which made this Union case. Because this is the brand name on the case's paper label, we can date it as having been made between 1857 and 1866, when the firm changed its name to the Florence Manufacturing Company.
We can further narrow down the time frame to probably sometime during the Civil War, as the case the bears the legend, "UNION FOREVER," above the image of an eagle clutching the Stars and Stripes. Even more to the point, the mat frame emphatically proclaims, "THE UNION NOW AND FOREVER," surrounded by a military side drum with crossed sabers leaning against it, a stack of cannonballs, a field cannon and rifle muzzles with bayonets on either side, all crowned with Federal flags. Since the ambrotype does not have a revenue stamp, we'd be safe in assuming that it had to have been made before August 1864 when Congress authorized the use of revenue stamps as a tax on luxury goods to support the war effort. Revenue stamps were applied to photos between August 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866.
All this leads us to speculate that this young gentleman might have been an up-and-coming apprentice or even a ship's cabin boy, taking into consideration the German konzertina's association with seamen. Another possibility to ponder is that our sitter might have been a "band boy," a civilian orderly attached to a military band. Band boys were typically black youths, mostly "contrabands" (slaves who escaped to the Union lines before the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation) or newly-freed slaves. However, our research indicates that band boys during the Civil War were at least issued a plain military jacket or sack coat as a well as a kepi or a forage cap with no insignia. In any case, he must had some sort of steady employment that put a few extra coins in his pocket so that he could afford these few simple luxuries.
Height is 3 in. (7.6 cm.), 2 1/2 in. (6.4 cm.) width
The ambrotype process entails the photograph being made as a "positive" negative directly on a glass plate. Unfortunately, sometimes the collodion coating, which contains the image, flakes off. This ambrotype is a case in point: Here a large patch of background has flaked off. However, this damage does not impact on the central image. There's a great deal of peripheral discoloration which affects the lower circumference of the photo as well the sides. Still, the subject's details and features are discernibly sharp and clear.
The Union case has some surface dirt and the interior velvet pad is a bit worn. However, considering the case's age, it's in fine shape overall. Good Condition.
Item # 2329
This item has been sold.
Click on a thumbnail above for a detailed view.