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  • Writer's pictureSabrina Riley

Treasures From the Attic

Not long ago my cousins Karen and Errol (whose paternal grandmother, Blanche, was a sister to my great-grandfather, Clint Fox) had the difficult task of cleaning out their childhood home, an old farmhouse purchased by their grandparents and where their father, Irwin Mang, was born. Among the clutter and many antiques, a few treasures surprised the family. These treasures include the portraits of three women which were the subject of much speculation at a family gathering last weekend. I didn't have my copy of Maureen A. Taylor's Family Photo Detective (Cincinnati, OH: Family Tree Books, 2013) which I find invaluable in dating pictures based on hair and clothing styles, so I could not contribute as much to the conversation as I wanted to.

All three are framed charcoal or conte crayon (made of charcoal and wax) portraits. Popular in the second half of the 19th century and still produced in the early 20th century (just search "charcoal portrait" on eBay), these portraits were commercially reproduced from smaller professional photographs which customers either mailed to a company or took to a traveling itinerant artist who set up a studio in a local shop. At a time when photography was usually limited to small pictures, crayon portraits gave families larger inexpensive portraits they could hang on a wall. Of the three portraits shown below, only one has been positively identified.

Picture of Christiana Lantz Fox.

Portrait 1

This first picture is almost certainly Christiana Lantz Fox, the wife of Jonas Fox (1816-1894). They were Clint and Blanche's grandparents. My grandmother's collection of family papers includes other pictures of Jonas and Christiana with which we were able to match this portrait. Born in 1824, Christiana was the fourth child of Henry Lantz and Christiana Follmer of Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Christiana married Jonas on June 8, 1843 and they moved to St. Joseph County, Michigan sometime between 1850 and 1860. They later relocated to Kalamazoo County where Christiana died in 1892.

So when would this portrait have been drawn? With the plain background and very little of her clothing showing, the eye is immediately drawn to Christiana's face. The slight wrinkles, sunken eyes, and double-chin are all characteristics of mature age. Christiana's severely center-parted hair is indicative of the 1870s and very early 1880s. Not enough of her clothing is shown to study all of its nuances. But the fitted shoulders, high neck, and large flat buttons place the dress between 1878 and 1882. Assuming that Christiana may have been thrifty with her clothing and not particularly style conscious, this portrait could have been drawn closer to her death. She was only 68 when she died and given her life as a farm wife, she probably would have looked older than this portrait shows. However, there is the potential that the charcoal medium did not accurately portray her age. I estimate this portrait was made sometime in the 1880s, likely in the early years of the decade.

Picture of unknown woman who may possibly be Lydia Cronkhite Fox.

Portrait 2

This portrait is a complete mystery. The name Bertha is written in pencil on the back, but we know of no Bertha's among our Fox ancestors. There is also the suggestion of an address, but this information could be some other notation as well.

The softer hairstyle with hair pulled into a back bun and bangs less frizzed than was popular in the 1870s and 1880 is common of the late 1890s. The puffed sleeves also indicate the late 1890s. While the late 1890s continued to see puffed sleeves they were reduced in size from the excessively ballooned "leg-of-mutton" sleeves of the early 1890s, but still less fitted than those of the 1870s and 1880s. However, the ruffles suggest the early 1890s as does the lack of blouse-like fullness. Likely this portrait was drawn between 1893 and 1896, but possibly slightly later. The woman in this portrait appears to be much younger than Christiana Lantz Fox was when her portrait was drawn.

Clint and Blanche's mother, Lydia Cronkhite Fox was born in 1861, making her in her 30s in the 1890s. It would make sense for Blanche to have a portrait of her mother. Lydia died in 1926 and I currently have only one photograph of her, probably taken not long before her death. Given the 20 or 30 year age difference between the two pictures and that the photograph was taken outdoors causing Lydia to squint her eyes, it if is difficult to prove a match. But nothing in this picture definitely rules out a match either. Otherwise, this mysterious woman may not be a member of the family at all and we have no idea how her portrait was acquired.

Portrait of a young girl who is possibly Blanche Fox Mang.

Portrait 3

For those who knew her, the first thought upon viewing this portrait has been that it portrays Blanche Fox Mang. This is certainly the face of an adolescent girl. With hair pulled back in a ribbon, but left in a pony tail rather than a bun, she is definitely under 18 years of age. The high neck, full sleeves, but lack of ruffles is common of the early 1900s. This clothing certainly predates 1908 when square or round dickey effects became common. Without seeing the waistline or how "blousey" the bodice is, it is difficult to date the portrait further. If this is indeed Blanche, who was born in 1890, it is completely possible this portrait was drawn between 1904 and 1907. The clothing could be placed earlier, but the apparent age of the subject supports the slightly later date range.

Irwin's wife, Ruth, had a habit of repurposing frames. So it was with chagrin, but not necessarily surprise, that my cousins also discovered Jonas Fox's portrait lying lose in the attic and torn from having been removed from a frame. It turns out at the time of her wedding, Karen was given a frame with a mirror in it which matches the frame of Christiana's portrait. The evidence speaks for itself.

For more about crayon portraits:

RootsWeb Pate-L Archives. Crayon Portraits - provides an easy-to-understand summary of the production process

Leyshon, William E. "Photographs From the 19th Century: A Process Identification Guide." 1984-2001. - More technical, but valuable given the limited information available about crayon portraits.

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