From the Collections: Warren Portrait of Eddy
Many readers of biographies of Mary Baker Eddy will be familiar with this black-and-white portrait photograph from our collections. The work of W. Shaw Warren, it was likely taken in 1884. Eddy, seated in a studio, wears a velvet dress with buttons and holds a book in her hand.1
What is less well-known about this photo is that it was used as a “cabinet card”—a photograph mounted on a slightly larger piece of card stock, measuring 4¼ by 6½ inches, with the photographer’s information printed along the bottom of the card, as well as on the back, often in elaborate script.2 Some copies of Eddy’s photo in our collection feature the branding for W. Shaw Warren’s Boston-based studio. These cards were hugely popular in the late 1800s, as a way to share photos with friends and family. And one can imagine that, for those who took an interest in Christian Science and its founder, having a cabinet card of Eddy would be considered a rare and precious commodity.
Prior to the trend of sending cabinet cards to loved ones, people shared smaller photographic prints known as cartes de visite. These were collected and kept in photo albums. The larger cards were better suited for display in or on a parlor cabinet—hence the name.3 A whatnot in Eddy’s Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, home gives an idea of how these photos might have been displayed (see photo).
Through a recent, in-depth study of Eddy’s incoming correspondence, we have learned that a cabinet card with the Warren portrait was circulated for display in just this way. The knowledge that this photo was taken for sharing as a cabinet card—and that it meant a great deal to her students who received it—gives us a new depth of understanding about this particular image.
In the early 1880s, Christian Science was beginning to expand beyond the Boston area and was seeing particular growth in the Midwest around Chicago and Milwaukee. As it moved further afield, Christian Science reached individuals who had never met Eddy. While some traveled to Boston to take her classes, such trips were special and costly undertakings.
Mattie Williams of Columbus, Wisconsin, often sent long letters to Eddy. In 1885 she described the unique value of this photo:
My beloved teacher the beautiful photograph of yourself came to hand this afternoon, and such a surprise as it was to be sure, never did I receive a more precious gift. I had told my family and friends about you, tried to describe your face and form. Now I have the pleasure of introducing them to your shadow How very kind of you to remember me thus Well do I know that I am only one of many scores of your Spiritual children whom you would be glad to remember in like manner. accept thanks at this time. and should you care for a likeness of me will send one in the spring as then I shall sit for some when I visit the City. Our little city is not favored with a first class artist at this time.4
Silas Sawyer, a Christian Science practitioner and teacher in the Milwaukee area, shared similar sentiments and spoke of its value to his students:
I am sure mortals could have experienced no greater pleasure than your letter of the 1st ins’t produced. Your representative occupies a prominent place on our table, even as yourself in our affections. The identity of our teacher in the blessed Truth, stands out in too clear characters, not to be instantly recognized by us. It is a good picture, and it afforded me great pleasure to show it to my students, who desired very much to see it. You know we talk Mrs Eddy, very much, in our instructions, therefore a desire to meet, or see you is stimulated.5
Both of these letters reveal how much photos of Eddy were valued—and how much it meant for those just discovering the teachings of Christian Science to “meet” its discoverer through them. For example, Williams’s husband had been quite resistant to her studying Christian Science, and it’s not hard to imagine that it was helpful for family members to at least connect a likeness with her name and ideas.
Martha E. Sherman was among those establishing Christian Science in Chicago, along with her husband, Bradford, and her son, Roger. In a letter penned on November 3, 1884, she echoed the feelings of Sawyer and Williams: “Your dear picture gives me much pleasure, and all my friends like it so much, and when I see you will whisper in your ear, all the beautiful words that are Said about my dear loved teacher’s picture.”6 After Nancy Swartwout, a patient of Bradford Sherman, saw the family’s copy of the photo, her husband, Thomas, sent Eddy a request on his wife’s behalf: “She wishes me to say to you that She Saw your photograph at Mr Shermans, and She would really like one of them if you have one to Spare.”7
One of the more unusual cabinet card requests came from Ellen Brown Linscott, another student of Eddy who was instrumental in the early growth of Christian Science in Chicago. “Will you Please send me one of your card photographs if you have one to spare,” she wrote, “and also the exact dimensions from the highest point of your classic eyebrow, to the lowest point of your classic chin Don’t think impertinent for I assure you it is not so meant for I love you more & more each day – Do not tell anyone I say so.”8 Unfortunately, we do not learn why Linscott requested these dimensions. In response to Linscott’s request for a cabinet card, Eddy wrote that the negative had been broken.
From Eddy’s letter, we also learn that her photo had been used by some in the Boston area for healing the sick, which was contrary to Christian Science. Eddy discouraged personal adulation, although it seems she understood the value of sharing her likeness with her more dedicated students. And she added this: “I can’t say when I can sit again for one but when I do will send one to you I am too worn all my time with such incessant labor to look well in a picture or even natural.”9 While sitting for a photograph may have presented a challenge to Eddy, given her busy schedule, it is clear that having a photo of their teacher was of great value to her students.
You can now read these letters for yourself, through an artifact list from the Mary Baker Eddy Papers. There you’ll see the Warren portrait, along with links to all the letters that reference it. We’ll be adding new items to the artifact list, as we uncover the stories behind them in Eddy’s correspondence.
To learn more about the Library’s photographic holdings, watch this live podcast discussion with our photo archivist.
- We are unable to provide a definitive answer as to whether or not Eddy was holding a copy of her own book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. It is quite possible that she had intentionally brought a copy with her when sitting for the photo. It is equally possible that the photographer, learning that his subject was an author, provided her with a prop; including key identifying objects in portraits was an artistic practice that long predated photography.
- Greta Bahnemann, “Format Highlights: Cabinet Cards,” https://mndigital.org/projects/primary-source-sets/format-highlights-cabinet-cards.
- Cabinet Card Photographs. https://www.collectorsweekly.com/photographs/cabinet-cards.
- Mattie Williams to Mary Baker Eddy, 6 January, 1885, IC589.60.018. https://mbepapers.org/?load=589.60.018.
- Silas J. Sawyer to Mary Baker Eddy, January 10, 1885, IC237aP2.38.001. https://mbepapers.org/?load=237AP2.38.001.
- Martha E. Sherman to Mary Baker Eddy, November 3, 1884, IC321.44.066. https://mbepapers.org/?load=321.44.066.
- Thomas Swartwout to Mary Baker Eddy, 7 April, 1885, IC578.59.020. https://mbepapers.org/?load=237AP2.38.001.
- Ellen Brown Linscott to Mary Baker Eddy, March 22, 1885, IC163A.27.022. https://mbepapers.org/?load=163A.27.022.
- Mary Baker Eddy to Ellen Brown Linscott, April 6, 1885, L10993.https://mbepapers.org/?load=L10993.