The South Caroliniana Library was recently able to add a collection of photographs that once belonged to a famous native. However, the library (operated by the University of South Carolina) acquired the collection through some unusual circumstances.
Mary Boykin Chesnut lived in Camden during the American Civil War and is famous for a diary she kept at the time– now considered one of the best primary sources on life in South Carolina in the war. Chesnut also kept a collection of about 200 small portrait photographs, known as cartes de visite. However, the photograph collection went to a niece upon her death and soon disappeared to history around 1931.
Fast-forward roughly 76 years, when Chesnut’s descendents found the photos in an unusual place– the online auction website eBay. They entered the bidding process, going against several other museums around the country. However, the family was able to contact the other bidders and convince them to drop out so Boykin’s descendants could buy the collection. The late Martha Daniels of Mulberry Plantation in Camden acquired the photographs in 2007.
“We were thrilled when we learned that they (won the bidding),” said Henry Fulmer, head of the Manuscripts Division at the library, “And equally thrilled when we learned that they wanted the photographic albums to be reunited with the diary.”
The family donated the collection– about 186 photographs in all– to the Caroliniana Library. That came as welcome news to the library, which has held the diary for years.
“We had no immediate plans to bid on (the collection),” Fulmer said, “It was expected to sell at a price well within the six-figure range. That was probably going to be impossible for us to do with relatively short notice.”
Chesnut (1823-1886) was the daughter of a governor and the wife of a Confederate general. A well-educated woman, she began writing a diary in Febraury 1861 to keep track of the war’s events. It is now considered one of the top works of literature from the South in the era.
Around the time she began writing, she was given her first carte de visite album as a gift. After that, she began collecting the portraits.
Cartes de visite are 2.5″ x 4.5″ cards that were popular in the 1860s, when photography was still a relatively new and unusual technology.
Chesnut’s collection includes portraits of a clean-shaven Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Henry Clay, and even the Pope at the time. The new collection also includes the only known image of her former slave Molly, who would later become Chesnut’s partner in a milk-and-egg business after the war.
Some of the images from the collection will be on public display at the library through January 31.