Click the Image to Enlarge

Unknown The John B. Ruger Family, 19th Century


Photography was a new technology in the 1800s and involved much more effort than it does now. Unlike today’s instant digital processes, early photographs took a long time to make, and color could be obtained only by hand-painting. A person posing for a photograph had to hold still for many minutes, so it is not hard to understand why people in old photographs often look stiff and unsmiling. Until photography became common, drawn and painted portraits were the only methods of preserving a person’s image. Many individuals had miniature portraits made because the process was relatively inexpensive and the result was portable. Photography offered a new art form to hand down to later generations—the family photo, rich with information about clothing, household furnishings, and other historical items, depending upon setting and content. Because photographs were relatively portable and inexpensive, many from earlier periods still remain to provide real images of people from all levels of society all over the world.

  • The John B. Ruger Family, 19th century
  • 16″ x 12″
  • Tippecanoe County Historical Association
  • Keywords: photography, portraits, albumen print on cabinet card
  • Subjects: people, men, women, children, boys, girls

John B. Ruger started the family business, J. B. Ruger and Sons Bakery, 24 years after William Digby founded the city of Lafayette. The family operated the bakery until 1854, when it was sold. Their address was 216–222 N. Sixth Street. This photograph appears to be a cabinet card—a style of portraiture common from 1867 to the turn of the 20th century. This is an albumen print, made by a process in which the paper used was first sprayed with a thin coating of egg white and then with light-sensitive silver salts. After the print was made, it was mounted on a standard heavy card with the photographer’s studio name printed upon it, usually in gold at the bottom.

Some Points To Consider

  • Help the class compare this family portrait from the 1800s to a typical family portrait today. Ask them to identify the differences between this early portrait, posed in a traditional way, and contemporary portraits or photographs made of their families or friends, such as the setting, clothing, expressions, hairdos, and other details. (Art 4.2.3)

Suggested Activities for Classroom Follow-Up

  • Have each student bring in family portraits. Compare them to the family in this photograph. How do expressions differ? The clothes worn? The pose of the people? If possible, find an old family photo similar to the one in the photograph; ask your local museum, perhaps, to provide one or several for use.
  • Ask students to name something in the present that compares with this studio portrait. Show examples and ask students to describe similarities and differences.
  • Ask students if they think modern color photographs will still be around 100 years from now. Why or why not?