The Symbolism of Reading in Early Photography

The Library Company recently designed and began selling a T-shirt with a quote from Benjamin Franklin's sister Jane Franklin. "I read as much as I dare," she declared in a letter to her brother. With Jane's words as inspiration I began looking through our collection for photographic portraits of people with books or other reading material.

Books appear as studio props with relative frequency even in some of our earliest photographs. Sitters may have felt that being portrayed next to books stacked on a table or posing with a book in one's lap lent an air of education or sophistication to a portrait. In her portrait, Juliana Randolph Wood, a member of a prominent Philadelphia Quaker family, pays little heed to the daguerreotypist taking her image. Her attention is completely occupied with the book opened on the table next to her.

Montgomery P. Simons, Julianna Randolph Wood, ca. 1847. P.8928.2. Gift of Radclyffe F. & Maria M. Thompson.

Providing children with a book or a toy to ensure cooperation in the tedious process of sitting for a portrait has long been a staple in the portrait photographer's arsenal. Although the child on the left seems a tad bored with the letters "F" and "G" in the image below, both children in this turn-of-the century image sit quietly with the large book opened on their laps.

Seth Pancoast Levis, Children Reading, 1909. P.9645.372. Gift of Matthew Schultz.

The latest in women's hairstyles seems to have completely captivated the attention of the little girl who posed with her magazine and perfect posture for a series of portraits by the well-known Philadelphia female artist Jessie Willcox Smith.

Jessie Willcox Smith, Unidentified Girl Reading, ca. 1920. P.9446.

Even an amateur photographer knew that having a relaxed sitter engaged in reading made the work of the photographer go the most smoothly. Here a boy looks down at a book while his brother or friend attempts to take his portrait.

Frank Berry, Boy Photographing Another Young Boy, ca. 1907. P.8986.40. Gift of Richard R. Frame.

For elderly sitters, a book may have represented the knowledge and wisdom acquired over a long life. In this photographic portrait, later given to a family member, the two older women, identified as sisters in their 80s, share a book.

Ludecke Studio, Cousin Matttie Wright's Aunts from Wilmington, 1912.

In the earliest days of photography, books provided a familiar and comfortable prop during what might have been a person's first experience of sitting for a daguerreotype. Even as photography grew commonplace, reading material gave sitters something to focus on to alleviate the self-consciousness that often accompanies sitting for a portrait session. Whether young or old, sitters with a book could at least give the illusion of being caught in a moment of quiet reflection.