Calvin Frye’s camera
Reminiscences of members of Mary Baker Eddy’s staff in her Pleasant View and Chestnut Hill homes often include descriptions of Eddy’s daily activities. As we read these reminiscences today, we might well wish we could go beyond imagining what the activities they describe were like, and actually see them.
Well, there’s a sense in which we can, because among the thousands of historic photographs in the Library’s collection many—some posed and some candid—were taken of daily life in Eddy’s Pleasant View and Chestnut Hill homes. And we have these photos today largely because several members of Eddy’s staff enjoyed photography as a hobby.
Eddy sometimes used the terminology of optics to illustrate her teachings and referred to the forerunner of photography, the camera obscura, in a letter to Christian Science churches in Chicago: “What is gratitude but a powerful camera obscura, a thing focusing light where love, memory, and all within the human heart is present to manifest light.”1
Photography became practical during the nineteenth century, after a French doctor named Nicephore Niepce produced in 1826 what is considered to be the first photograph. By 1835 Niepce and L. J. M. Daguerre had developed a technology that enabled the production of photographs known as daguerreotypes. One disadvantage of daguerreotypes was that they could not be duplicated—each was unique. This problem was overcome by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877), an Englishman who developed a process called “calotype,” which enabled photographs to be duplicated. Improvements continued as the years went by, and by the time members of Mary Baker Eddy’s staff were enjoying picture-taking, photographic technology had developed to the point where cameras began to hit the mass market.
Eddy’s employees used some of these cameras. One of them—a Kodak “Pony Premo No. 6”—is our object for this month. It belonged to Eddy’s secretary Calvin Frye, and is a part of the Library’s artifact collection. The “Premo” camera line was developed by the Rochester Optical Company, which was taken over in 1903 by the Kodak Company.
While the collection contains photographs that various members of Eddy’s household took, Calvin Frye’s photos are particularly notable. Frye maintained a lively interest in technology throughout his life. And it was thus only natural that he’d be enamored by a technology that enabled people to permanently record visual images of events.
Frye took quite a few candid photos of Eddy. She seems to have been one of his favorite subjects! And one of these these photos shows her walking on one of the Pleasant View verandas, dressed for cold weather. This view of Eddy that Frye captured may be somewhat similar to how she looked when artist James Gilman saw her on the veranda in December 1892. Gilman described it in a letter to a friend: “I was sketching some details of the house from the rear, at the lower end of the grounds, some sixty rods away from it, when a dark figure came out upon the upper verandah [sic] (there are three of them the full length of the house…) and began to walk the length of the verandah and back. I was there sketching some fifteen minutes or more and the black figure walked vigorously back and forth the length of the piazza and return, constantly.”2
Today it’s common for those owning smart phones that contain cameras to take pictures of themselves known as “selfies.” Well, Calvin Frye may have enjoyed taking selfies, too. We have several examples of possible selfies of him in the collection. To take them, a person would mount a camera on a tripod and stand or sit holding a bulb connected by a cord to the camera’s shutter. When ready, a squeeze of the bulb would thus capture an image of the person.
When one compares photos taken in the nineteenth century to those of today, one difference is striking—the general absence of smiles. There have been various speculations as to why this is so, but a consensus today among scholars is that Victorians thought that smiling in photos would make them look foolish and frivolous. As Eddy’s contemporary and critic Mark Twain wrote, “A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever.”3
While some of the photos that members of Eddy’s staff took do not show smiles, others do. But whatever the demeanor of her dedicated workers, these pictorial records have come down to us as valuable visual images of what daily life was like in her household, as she and her staff enjoyed recreation in addition to their labors in establishing the cause of Christian Science.
- Mary Baker Eddy, The First Church of Christ, Scientist and Miscellany (Boston: The First Church of Christ, Scientist, 1908), 164.
- Painting a Poem: Mary Baker Eddy and James F. Gilman Illustrate Christ and Christmas (Boston: The Christian Science Board of Directors, 1998), 18, 19.
- Mark Twain and the Happy Island (Chicago: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1913), 34.