Proof Positive

Skillern family member, Fayetteville, Arkansas, mid-1860s.

Skillern family member, Fayetteville, mid-1860s. James R. Howerton, photographer. Howerton was a savvy businessman, advertising on the back of his tintype sleeves. Martha Audrain and Mary John Skillern Jones Collection (S-98-17-50)


Advertising on the back of tintype shown above.

Advertising on the back of tintype shown above.

I never know what a day at the museum will bring. I may start out planning to work on one thing and then, by chance and curiosity, fall into a completely different project. My most recent adventure into the unknown began simply enough, while researching settler life.

Wanting to learn more about the area’s early economic activities, I looked at the “Products of Industry Schedule for Washington County,” part of the 1860 Federal census. Listed amongst the blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, millers, wagon makers, saddlers, and shoemakers was an artist, J. Howerton, whose medium was photography. In the 1860 schedule he’s recorded as having $275 worth of materials, specifically photographs (probably tintypes, images printed on sheet iron) and ambrotypes (images made on sheet glass). His production value for the previous 12 months was reported as $1,000.

Photographer James R. Howerton, circa 1870

Photographer James R. Howerton, possibly early 1870s. Washington County Historical Society Collection (P-1667)

Howerton is a familiar name. While we don’t know who took the majority of the earliest photos in our collection, we’re fortunate to have several paper-sleeved tintypes with his stamp on them. A rarity, given that sleeves often don’t survive, and those that do are often unmarked. Hoping to find 1860s Howerton images, I examined several of his tintypes, all without identifications or dates.

There’s a wonderful 1995 book by Joan L. Severa called Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900. I consult it frequently when trying to determine photo dates based on clothing styles.

Howerton tintypes, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1860s

Howerton tintypes, Fayetteville, circa 1860s. These portraits were likely taken around 1864-1866 and may be of a husband and wife, as the pair are close in age and their images are housed in identical sleeves. Washington County Historical Society Collection (P-4097A and B)

One tintype (photo above right) is of a young woman, whose hair is dressed in the popular style of the early to mid-1860s, pulled away from her face and worn low over the back of her neck, probably in a net. The armscye—the armhole where the bodice’s shoulder joins the sleeve—is set low with a wide, full sleeve pleated into it. White collars were common with everyday dresses as were short, gathered waists with wide belts with a pretty buckle. Across her upper arms and bodice is a decorative Greek-key design, made from soutache, a fine braid. It creates the false yoke line popular in the mid-1860s.

Info about James R. Howerton is spotty. From the industry schedule we know that he was plying his trade in Fayetteville in 1860. The tintypes suggest he was here during or immediately after the Civil War. One advertises him as being “one door east of Benbrook’s store,” probably a reference to merchant John Quincy Benbrook. In July 1868 Howerton ran an ad in the Fayetteville Democrat newspaper. By the late 1860s or early 1870s, he began producing carte-de-visites, photos mounted on small pasteboard cards. We know this because of a photo album that once belonged to Wesley Searcy of Springdale. It’s filled with images of lovely young ladies dressed in fashionable 1870s garb. Our collections manager Carolyn Reno jokingly refers to them as “Wesley’s girlfriends.”

Howerton carte-de-visites, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1870s

Howerton carte-de-visites, Fayetteville, Arkansas, 1870s. The lady on the right has her hair dressed in ringlets, a popular style for young women beginning in 1868. The black velvet neck ribbon around her neck was fashionable in the early 1870s. The lady on the left is wearing an atypical garment, and may be a performer of some kind. Extensive beads, fringe, ribbon trim, and embroidery elements push this dress over the top. Not to mention the shocking display of leg! Her very long earrings were the rage in the early 1870s. Lockwood & Annabel Searcy Collection (S-92-145-13:3 and S-92-145-13:5)

A 20th-century newspaper account has him supposedly moving to Hindsville (Madison County) before coming back to Fayetteville sometime after August 1877; from there he moved to Illinois. He returned to Arkansas in 1883 and teamed up with fellow photographer John William Hansard. The following year they moved their studio to the Walker building on the northwest corner of the Fayetteville square. Their upstairs gallery had an “excellent skylight and artistic backgrounds.” Hansard bought out Howerton in 1884. What became of him after that is yet to be discovered.

Howerton was not the first photographer in Fayetteville. In the 1850s we know of Thomas Reynolds and Mrs. M.A. Henry. But thanks to Howerton’s labels and the luck of them surviving 150 years, I believe these tintypes are the earliest images in our collection that we can positively say were made in Northwest Arkansas.

What fun to make such an amazing discovery! Now if only someone with Howerton’s penchant for labeling had thought to write down the sitters’ names.

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