Portrait of Alexander Winchell, Revenaugh & Co., Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1869. WHi 45215
The ninety-five portraits within this gallery portray acquaintances of pioneering Wisconsin scientist and antiquarian Increase Allan Lapham (1811-1875). All are from an album of cartes-de-visite photographic portraits collected from 1862-75 and depict many notable 19th century geologists and botanists-and a handful of authors and artists-from America and Europe. This album functions as a photographic component to the Wisconsin Historical Society's expansive Increase Allan Lapham Papers, 1825-1930. More than merely helping put a face to a name, however, it adds rich and personal complexities to its enormous textual counterpart. As such, these photographs may be used as a primary resource in their own right to better understand Lapham's 19th Century world.
Before taking up residence in Milwaukee in 1836, Lapham lived and worked in Ohio as a stonecutter for the locks of the Eerie Canal. In his later writings, Lapham credits this experience with cultivating his love for the natural world. He writes,
I found my first fossils and began my collection. The beautiful specimens I found in the deep rock cut at this place gave me my first ideas of mineralogy and initiated a habit of observation which has continued through all my life.
Of seemingly equal significance is how this passage illuminates Lapham's affinity for collecting and sorting things them into taxonomical categories, whether it be rocks, plants, or-in this case-photographs. Perhaps this character trait is unsurprising, however, as 19th Century botanists or geologists share a closer resemblance to today's collector-albeit an astute one-than today's scientist. Lapham, along with his colleagues, amassed extensive herbariums and catalogues containing countless regional plant specimens, often acquired by post rather than in the field. This constituted Lapham's relationship with many of these figures; quite a few he may never have met in person.
It would be inaccurate, however, to credit this album entirely to Lapham's obsessive collecting habits. Trading cartes-de-visites was an immensely popular activity during this period, and many people had albums of this sort. What's more, the album was not his direct undertaking, but rather a project of his two daughters Julia and Mary. In numerous letters within the Lapham collection at WHS, Mary or Julia offer a cartes of their father in exchange for one of his colleagues'. More frequently, however, Lapham himself would request a portrait on behalf of his daughters, often amidst more scholarly discussions of mosses or lichens. But even this practice was not specific to Lapham. Botanist John Torrey, confessed in a 1865 letter, "Requests for photographs have been neglected more than other letters, because I had none that my daughter wants consent to be given away," and later added that "…I, too, have an album for botanists, and would be pleased to have his to place in it." Nonetheless, considering the size of this album, as well as the prominence of the scientists featured within it (it is nearly a who's who of 19th century scientific world), it remains a strong testament to Lapham's scope as a public figure.
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Suggestions for Further Reading
Lapham's "An Early Journey through Sauk County" (1849)
Lapham's "Selected Letters on Indian Mounds, 1846-1852"
Lapham's "Route of the Proposed Milwaukee and Rock River Canal" (1838)