Say hello to Aunty Moser, the whiskered centenarian who was born 271 years ago – all the way back in 1749 – & photographed here at the age of 103. She is one of the earliest-born people ever to have been photographed, sharing that distinction with Conrad Heyer, also born in 1749. pic.twitter.com/TnNKHygPNF
— BabelColour (@StuartHumphryes) March 6, 2020
The development of photography in the 19th century changed the art of portraiture. While etchings, paintings, and sketches remained commonplace, the earliest photographic portraits began to be captured on daguerrotype plates. This new method spread fast and wide so that by mid-century a studio portrait was accessible to middle-class sitters. Such portraits were a new way to memorialize history and its people—including everyone from famous presidents to ordinary folks. In fact, a small daguerrotype auctioned by Cowan's Auctions in 2014 depicts a special—albeit mysterious—piece of history: a 103-year-old woman identified only as Aunty Moser. Born in 1749, she is one of the earliest-born people to ever be photographed.
The image of Aunty Moser is a sixth-plate daguerrotype—a small, unique image on a silver-plated copper plate which was framed in a small traveling case. The image is dated November 1852 by a small notation which also mentions the sitter's age of 103. This places her birth in 1749. If correct, Aunty Moser was born only 133 years after the death of William Shakespeare in 1616. By contrast, her birth predates that of Barack Obama in 1961 by 212 years. Aunty Moser's long life makes her notable in an age when the life expectancy was about 60 years for women who made it out alive from the extra-deadly childhood years. Today, it is her proximity to a seemingly distant past which makes her portrait so interesting.
Aunty Moser competes against several others for the title of earliest-born portrait subject. It can be difficult to verify birth dates, so a definitive winner is hard to pronounce. Conrad Heyer is also thought to have been born in 1749 in Waldoboro, Maine. A veteran of the Revolutionary War, he sat for his own portrait around 1852, several years before his death in 1856. Another example is the portrait of Caesar, a formerly enslaved man who lived in upstate New York. He may have been born in 1737. It is known he died 1852, which would make him 115 years old at the time of his death. His portrait was taken in 1851. If his birth year is correct, Caesar is by far the earliest-born person to be photographed. Much is unknown about his life, but he is also thought to have been one of the last people residing in New York State to be enslaved and then manumitted.
Photographs help bring the past to life. These elderly faces were all born before the United States existed as a nation. While the the 18th century can seem like a remarkably long time ago, the familiar medium of photography reminds us just how close in time the past truly is, and how much change one lifetime can encompass.