Several years ago I purchased this ferrotype (tintype) at an antiques sale. On the reverse of the image is a hand written note “Aunt Eliza B?rnwell”, likely Barnwell or Burnwell. The image was struck outside, in front of a tree. You can see the edge of the photographer’s prop chair under Eliza’s arm. She wears a deeply yoked dress that has a distinctive print. The image is not the best clarity, but she appears to wear wide lappets on her collar, a neck bow, and a broach. She lacks a wedding band. Her hair is simply and smoothly arranged, and she has added the expense of having her image tinted (a process done individually, by hand, usually by the photographer themselves, or an assistant);l making her dress red, her neck bow blue, her broach gold, and her cheeks a light pink.
Everything I have stated above is obvious to a casual viewing of the image. However, with a base knowledge of some aspects of the 19th century, and little research, we can analyze the image a bit further.
Eliza, is, as noted previously, outside for her image. Her clothes are nice, but practical, her hair is practical. These factors lead me to think this was taken by an itinerant photographer. It being a ferrotype further supports this, as the traveling photographer frequently used this process as the plates(steel) were easier to transport than glass(ambrotypes), and there were not negatives requiring storage as with paper images (CDVs or Carte de Visites).
The seller I purchased this particular image from was selling the estate contents of a home in southern North Carolina. Combined with either version of her last name, makes me believe she is likely a North or South Carolina woman. Her style of dress indicates this image was taken in the 1859-1861 range, but, as she is older, and in a rural setting, could be a few years later than that. Yoked bodices on adult women, particularly with this shaped yoke, combined with her wide lappets and bow, all point to the late 1850s.
Her lack of wedding band combined with the gold broach, along with her appearance of 40-60 years old leads me to think Aunt Eliza may have been a spinster.
There are several contenders for Eliza Barnwell and Eliza Burnwell in the 1850 and 1860 census, so I didn’t spend effort continuing to try and deduce which one she could have been. Eliza was a very common name, with Elizabeth being an even more common name.
Personally, my favorite images to collect are the ones with these little tidbits into the person’s life. We are lucky to have a name of this woman, along with that wonderful tree she uses as a backdrop! I think it adds far more character to the image that a photographer’s studio any day!