This month the Western Illinois Museum’s “Artifact of the Month” is a group of historical photographs of Macomb residents. These photographs show faces from 1880s-90s Macomb and illustrate the work of a unique Macomb citizen.
The photographs on display are known as “cabinet card.” The photographs were pasted onto a cardboard backing with the standard size measuring 6 ½ x 4 ¼ inches, with a 5 ½ x 4 inch image. Introduced in the United States in 1866, the cabinet card remained popular until about 1906. Its heyday was mostly in the 1880s and 1890s.
The Victorian Age of the 1880s and 90s saw a rise of the middle class who found themselves with enough money and leisure time to pursue hobbies. Collecting cabinet cards was a popular fad at this time. People would exchange cards with one another, collecting the cabinet cards in albums. Looking at albums was a common parlor activity.
The photographs on display are portraits depicting an individual person, couples, family groups, or children. Not labeled with name or date, today these faces remain a mystery. These images preserve a slice of Macomb society from a by-gone era. Possibly, they show a present day Macomb resident’s great-grandmother, great-uncle, or long-forgotten great-great-uncle. The museum hopes visitors might recognize faces and can provide more information about the people portrayed.
These 27 portraits are all from one photography studio based in Macomb – the Gaites Photography Studio. What makes these photographs unusual is that all the photographs are the work of a female photographer, Laura Gaites.
Born in Macomb on October 6, 1861, Laura lived on West Washington Street. In 1881, she married H. William Gaites, also from Macomb. Mr. Gaites had training as a chemist, and decided to start a photography business which he established at 221 North Randolph Street, near the current site of Aurelio’s Pizza.
However, the harsh photographic chemicals undermined Mr. Gaites health, forcing him to stop his photographic work. He opened an ice cream and candy store on the ground floor of the building on Randolph Street. Mrs. Gaites moved the photography studio upstairs taking photographs during the day and assisting in candy-making at night.
For the next 71 years, Laura Gaites was a flourishing professional photographer and the Gaites Studio became well known in the area. When her husband died in 1917, she continued the studio on her own. Keeping up with developments in the field, she stayed in business right up to the final year of her life in 1952.
Numerous newspaper articles survive chronicling Laura Gaites’ long career. One article the author notes on Gaites’ 90th birthday, “She has spent her entire life capturing childhood’s smile, the charm of the wedding day, the beauty and dignity of advancing age.”
In another article, Laura herself remarked she could remember taking the wedding photo of a couple and then many years later taking the 60th wedding anniversary photo of the same couple! She spent her 90th birthday by taking pictures in her studio.
In the last year of her career, Laura estimated she had taken approximately 35,000 photographs. An obituary noted that at 90, she had been one of the nation’s oldest active photographers.
Laura Gaites left behind a body of work that record the people of the region at a moment in time, at the end of one century, and the beginning of a new century. She put a human face on those who came before us. The accomplished professional work of Laura Gaites makes her one of Macomb’s memorable resident and a pioneer woman in the photographic world.
From an essay by Heather Munro