Portraits from a Marriage: Photographing the Fricks

Henry Clay Frick and Adelaide Howard Childs were married one hundred and forty years ago this year, on December 15, 1881. Not surprisingly, there are no images of the wedding itself, since the practice of documenting weddings outside of a photographer’s studio did not become commonplace until after the Second World War. Still, one might expect Mr. and Mrs. Frick to have marked the occasion by having their photograph taken in their hometown of Pittsburgh. The Frick Family Papers confirm, however, that the earliest photos of the couple together were not taken until their honeymoon, and even Mrs. Frick’s own wedding portrait was taken much later than was previously thought. Now, new research into these formal portraits fills in gaps in the story of the pair’s first few weeks together as a married couple.

Henry and Adelaide’s wedding took place at the bride’s family home in Pittsburgh just one day before the new Mrs. Frick turned twenty-two, and four days before her husband celebrated his thirty-second birthday. Pittsburgh’s Daily Post reported that 200 guests were present at the “elegantly decorated” house, surely no small feat of organization for a young bride. (Read more about the Fricks’ courtship and wedding on The Frick Pittsburgh’s blog.)

Documentation in the family papers indicates that the couple departed Pittsburgh on the evening of the wedding, traveling by train to New York City. They stayed at the Fifth Avenue Hotel for nearly two weeks before continuing on to Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. While in New York, the newlyweds dined with Andrew Carnegie and his mother at the Windsor Hotel, where the historic partnership between Frick and Carnegie was first announced. Little is known about whom else they might have visited, or any entertainments they might have enjoyed, but the couple did take the opportunity to purchase items for their new home. On the day before they departed for Boston, for instance, they acquired a new brougham carriage from Brewster & Co., still in the collection of The Frick Pittsburgh. They did not elect to have their portrait taken by a New York photographer, which is perhaps surprising given numerous photographers they patronized in their adopted hometown in later years, especially Benjamin J. Falk, Roseti, Pach Brothers, and Napoleon Sarony.

Tintype of Henry and Adelaide H. C. Frick by W. L. Towne, 1882; The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

The first known photographs of the couple together were taken in Boston, during the second stop on their honeymoon. The Fricks sought out two photographers during their stay: W. L. Towne and James Notman. Towne produced at least two tintypes of the couple. The tintype was an inexpensive form of photography, and because it does not utilize a negative, each example is unique and not easily replicated. Little can be gleaned about the setting of the photographs. Notman, on the other hand, whose studio was very close to the Fricks’ hotel near Copley Square, photographed the couple in a richly furnished setting, with carved wood and velvet upholstery elegant enough to match the couple’s attire. Mr. and Mrs. Frick were evidently quite pleased with the portrait: An invoice in the Archives confirms that they ordered an additional twelve copies from Notman in late February, presumably to distribute to family and friends.

Cabinet card of Henry and Adelaide H. C. Frick by J. Notman, 1882; The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

At the time of their arrival in Washington, D.C., Mrs. Frick had still not been photographed in her wedding dress. That was soon remedied. On January 12, 1882, just two days before the couple returned to Pittsburgh, Mrs. Frick sat for Charles Milton Bell, a leading portrait photographer of the era known for photographing Washington notables as well as Native Americans and the city’s Black middle class. Bell’s studio was located on Pennsylvania Avenue, a much more commercial thoroughfare than it is now and home to nine of the city’s twenty-two professional photographers at the time, according to an 1881 city directory.

Comparison with other similar images helped confirm the setting of Adelaide Frick's 1882 solo portrait. Left: Cabinet card of Adelaide H. C. Frick in her wedding gown by C. M. Bell, 1882; The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives. Right: Vivian Burnett by C. M. Bell, 1873–1890; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, C. M. Bell Studio Collection, LC-DIG-bellcm-01570

Bell’s photographic legacy, comprised of more than 30,000 glass negatives, is now housed at the Library of Congress. It is this cache of digitized images that allowed us to confirm that Mrs. Frick’s portrait was taken in Bell’s studio by matching the carpet and furnishings as seen in other portraits. In an interesting twist, though, Mrs. Frick was photographed without her husband, making the images taken by Towne and Notman in Boston the only studio portraits of the two taken alone as a couple.

Cabinet card of Adelaide H. C. Frick (left) and her sister, Martha Childs, by C. M. Bell, 1882; The Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library Archives

Bell also made a portrait of Mrs. Frick with her sister, Martha Childs, which has until now remained undated. Correspondence between the sisters indicates that Miss Childs planned to join the couple during their stay in Philadelphia, but this image, probably taken the same day as the wedding portrait, proves that she accompanied them to Washington as well.

What is still unknown is whether Mrs. Frick traveled with her wedding dress with the aim of being photographed at some point, or whether she planned to sit for Bell all along. More compellingly, one wonders why she chose to be photographed so far from home nearly a month after her marriage. We’ll likely never know, but these new findings enrich our viewing of these images and shed light on the early days of the Fricks’ married life.

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