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Can you spell Silhouette?

Silhouette, like daguerreotype, is a word I always pause over when writing. No surprise that both terms were named after Frenchmen—Étienne de Silhouette (1709-1767) and Louis Daguerre (1787-1851). My high school French is not quite up to the task!

The reason for the recent exploration into French terms and the creation of images is a recent donation to the Historical Society. A gentleman who grew up in Longmeadow, but has since moved to the Midwest, contacted us about a framed series of silhouettes. The five women were the traditional black paper silhouettes about 3 inches tall. It was apparent that they were of a variety of ages, from young woman to elderly, and all from the “Chapin” family, according to the donor. The donor, now elderly, thought that the silhouettes, that hung in the family home on Chandler Avenue for decades, should come home. He sent along a photo, and they looked interesting. Then, when questioned about specific identification, the tantalizing response— “there’s some writing on the back.” Oh boy!

A few days later, the carefully packed box appeared, and the 5 profiles were first seen. Then, I flipped over the frame to read the back—each lady is described with name, spouse, home town, and some with dates of birth and death. The one exception was “Aunt King.” Two of the women had relationship information like “my great grandmother” and “my great, great grandmother.” There were Chapins in the mix, but the oldest lady was identified as “Mary Williams Chapin, daughter of John and Anne Williams, and granddaughter of Rev. Stephen Williams, first pastor of Longmeadow Congregational Church.” Bingo! That’s a great Longmeadow connection! The writer of the information helpfully added his or her own initials---“E.G.C.”

While Chapin is a fairly common name in the area, it’s not especially common in Longmeadow. Not that we don’t have an abundance of names starting with “C”—you can’t throw a stick in our cemetery without hitting a Colton, Coomes, or Cooley! Since the donor’s mother’s maiden name was Burt, I started there. Many hours, searches, notes, trees, and pulled hair later—I have extensive family trees created for Burts, Williams, Chapins, Cady’s, and Davis, but have yet to find anyone with the initials “E. G. C.!”

I did take a break to look into Monsieur Silhouette. He was not an artist, but was the French Minister of Finance under Louis XVth in 1759. He had the ill luck of trying to save money during the Seven Years’ War. His budget-cutting measures were criticized as overly cheap, and “a la Silhouette” became a derogatory term for cheap. What we now call silhouettes were already common, inexpensive ways to create a likeness if you couldn’t afford the more expensive painting. They became highly popular in the United States from about 1790 to 1840. Here the artists who created silhouettes were called “profilists” or “scissorgraphists.” Say that three times fast! They were usually cut from a lightweight black cardboard and mounted on a light background. The talented artists could create them very quickly—sometimes in as little as three minutes! The Longmeadow Historical Society is fortunate to have other silhouettes, including a set complete with its negative—the paper it was cut out of.

Portraits are not the only places that we see silhouettes—they are common in everyday life as signs, ads, and even coins.

So, the research continues—I am determined to discover who “E. G. C.” is—wish me luck! And we thank our generous donor for thinking of us.

-Contributed by Betsy McKee, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member

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