Thursday, September 22, 2011

Explorations in “Historical Hotness”

Hey, handsome stranger
Saw your pic in the archives
Too bad you're dead now

Rebecca Goldman, winner, Archival Haiku 2011

Mustaches are really hot right now.

Not modern mustaches—though handlebars seem to be making an ironic comeback—but the facial hair of the past.  Seeing through the facial hair to the faces, viewers move, perhaps, toward a more empathetic view of people of the past.

Mustaches of the 19th Century was an early harbinger of this trend.  Beginning in 2007, the blog posted photos of unidentified gentlemen with interesting mustaches, complete with snarky faux-historical commentary. The photos all came from the collections of the University of Kentucky Archives; the blog was jokingly conceived as an online exhibit by a photo archivist there.

This year, a Smithsonian Magazine poll celebrated the Civil War sesquicentennial by asking visitors to vote on the best facial hair among those who served in the conflict.  As of late August, 2011, Ambrose Burnside, whose eponymous whisker style is now known as “sideburns,” was blowing away the competition. The comments are full of nominations of other Civil War figures with notable facial hair (“Where’s Longstreet?”), laments for the lack of Southerners among the 25 photos in the poll, wishes for the return of such arresting facial hair, and comments on the beauty of the officers' hair and eyes.

Facial hair is not the only suddenly compelling part of history’s faces.  My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, a tumblr blog situated “where early photography meets historical hotness” presents photos of men from the 19th century.  Most of the photos identify both the person pictured and the repository, a tribute to the care for accuracy of the site's founder, Michelle Legro, a writer and editor.  The site became a minor meme, possibly due to its location on tumblr, a lightweight blog platform that makes sharing trivially easy. 

And as a response to the popularity of the men-only My Daguerreotype Boyfriend, Jerry Simmons, an archivist at the National Archives, started My Civil War Girlfriend, “a place to share photos of your favorite 1860s-era cutie.”  A photo of Sarah Emma Edmonds is captioned “I think my Civil War girlfriend can beat up your daguerreotype boyfriend” and, while soliciting submissions of photos with clever captions, the site comes with a caveat to treat all the photo subjects kindly.

These sites showcasing the appearances of the people of the past do objectify those people--but in a gentle, silly way that affirms their—and our—common humanity.  Who knew sideburns could be gateways to the soul?

~ Suzanne Fischer

IMAGE:  Albert Wolfe, c. 1901 from My Daguerrotype Boyfriend

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