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The Smirking Sister

November 29, 2017

Mary Susan and Emily Everett, photo by unidentified photographer, ca 1852 


This is the first of several fascinating images I discovered in the Library of Congress’ Daguerreotype Collection. It features two women that appear to be sisters, posing together. Two things drew me to this image:


  • The two women: One dressed very conservatively with a bodice buttoned up to the throat where it ends in a high collar and a bow. Her hair is neatly smoothed and pinned up. The other woman wears an off the shoulder bodice with a choker at her throat and a shawl wrapped about her shoulders, her hair is also parted in the center and neatly smoothed back. However, instead of pinning her hair up, ringlets frame her neck. The contrast between the two women is striking.

  • The woman with ringlets has beautiful, sleepy eyes and very deliberately smirks as the image is taken, like an Antebellum Mona Lisa. I realize that smiles in old photographs are rare. I wonder what she is thinking?

Mary Susan Everett Abbot, photo by L. H. Hale, ca 1854 


I wanted to know more, so obviously I went down a research rabbit hole that had very little to do with hair. Unfortunately for me, my curiosity is insatiable. I discovered that the daguerreotype was taken around 1852. The smirking woman is Mary Susan Everett Abbot. The other is her sister, Emily. Their father, Stevens, was a minister and Harvard grad from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Their mother, also named Emily, was an Aquarius, probable abolitionist, and minister’s daughter whose parents had relocated from Wilton, New Hampshire to Cambridge.


Henry L. Abbot, photo by unidentified photographer, ca 1854 


Emily was 23 when this portrait was taken and would marry two years later. Mary Susan, who was 20 at the time, would marry General Henry L. Abbot four years later in 1856. Henry was a West Point grad, and army engineer who would serve in the Union Army during the Civil War and later consult on the Panama Canal. Mary Susan’s life was tragically short. She had four children and died at age 39. The National Gallery holds a gorgeous portrait where she is immortalized, painted by Nahum Ball Onthank. I'm not done with The Smirking Sister quite yet. In my next post, I will take a look at the history and practice of smiling for photographs and portraits.


Susan Everett Abbot, 1857

oil painting by Nahum Ball Onthank


That's quite a story and it all started with a smirk! What do you think is on young Mary Susan's mind? Do you have a photo that reveals something about your interior life or personality? And of course, how about that hair? Amirite? Join the conversation on my IG @bdavis_hair


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