What you see: A circa 1865 tintype of American physician Mary Edwards Walker, taken in the year she received the Medal of Honor for her service during the Civil War. Swann Auction Galleries estimates it at $6,000 to $9,000.
The expert: Deborah Rogal, associate director of photographs and photobooks at Swann Auction Galleries.
How often was Walker photographed around this time, and during her life? Do we know how many photos of her exist, tintype or otherwise? There are several known photos of her from all periods of her life, but fewer than ten, I’d say.
Do we have a more precise date on the tintype than 1865? I’m wondering if this is the first portrait of her wearing her Medal of Honor. No. I wish we did. There’s no way for us to pinpoint a more specific date. It’s dated primarily on the presence of the medal, which she won in 1865, and the overall appearance.
Could we talk a bit about Walker’s life story? I did not know about her until I spotted this lot in the Swann catalog. I also didn’t know about her until we received the object. She was an extraordinary person. It’s amazing she’s not more widely appreciated for who she was.
Her parents were progressive. They encouraged her education and encouraged her to dress how she wanted. She went to Syracuse Medical College and graduated as a doctor. She married [a fellow medical student] and privately practiced together. As far as I understand, trusting female doctors was not something patients found easy to do [so the practice struggled]. From her youth, she wore uncommon dress. In some ways, that was the most radical thing she did. She carried on, progressively getting more masculine [in her choice of clothing], but she wouldn’t refer to it that way. She didn’t wear corsets and was really outspoken about it. It caused a lot of backlash.
Let’s talk about her work during the Civil War, which led to her becoming the first, and so far, only woman to receive the Medal of Honor. When war broke out, she volunteered her services as a doctor. She crossed enemy lines [to tend to patients]. I think she believed powerfully in the ability to serve, and she was proud of her service. She wore her Medal of Honor in almost every photo taken of her after the war, and she refused to relinquish it. She was very proud of it, and deservedly so. After the war, she became a vocal proponent of women’s rights.
How did she win the Medal of Honor? As far as I understand, she attempted to retroactively receive a commission from the Army, partly to receive benefits. People didn’t know what to do with her. I think the medal was a way for them to give her recognition without giving her formal status as a veteran, which she was asking for. It was the first time a woman was awarded the medal. She believed she earned it for her bravery. She was very brave. She traveled in the south, and she was taken as a prisoner of war. [She was captured in April 1864 and released in a prisoner exchange four months later.]
The government rescinded the medal in 1917, two years before she died. But her medal was NOT taken away because she was an outspoken activist for women’s rights, correct? I do think her being a woman was an element, but it was not because of that. [The government of the time] questioned how the Medal of Honor was awarded in the past. Many others had theirs retroactively rescinded. [More than 900 recipients suffered the same fate as Walker. Some were removed because they were not technically members of the military when they earned the honor.] She got it back after her death. [President Jimmy Carter restored the honor to Walker in 1977.]
The tintype shows her wearing pants. Was it a brave act for a woman to pose for a photo in 1865 while wearing pants? Absolutely. There are women willing to record themselves wearing pants–women in bloomers, and women who served in the army and dressed as men to do that. But I don’t think they dressed that way as a matter of course through their lives. What sets Walker apart is her commitment. She dressed this way throughout her life. [She felt] women should not be forced to wear clothing that impacted their health and denied them the range of possibilities that men had. There was another level on which she was very brave. There are anecdotal stories of her wearing pants and being chased or having objects thrown at her, and she was arrested at least once for dressing this way. But she was very sure of herself. An appealing aspect to her personality was that she was so confident and articulate about her choices.
Would she have worn an outfit like this on the battlefield, or are these more formal clothes? The outfit in the tintype, I’d say, is certainly more formal than what she wore during the war. She would have dressed in a more casual manner. I understand that she styled herself a uniform like the Army uniform.
Is there any information recorded on the tintype itself? There is not, which is typical for tintypes of the period. Tintypes were an incredibly popular medium for doing portraits. There were studios, and there were itinerant tintypists. They were accessible and quick to produce. You see a lot of soldiers commemorating their own service or giving them to family members while they are away.
Can we tell by looking why Walker might have had this tintype made–whether she did it for herself, or for someone else, or to promote herself? It’s impossible to know for sure, given that tintypes are unique objects by definition. It’s possible to imagine she made it for herself or someone close to her.
What’s that light-colored thing that’s behind her in the picture? It looks like a studio prop. It could be a partially obscured portrait stand, which was used to position your body so you don’t make a move during the exposure and make a blurry image.
How did this tintype come to you? Was Walker identified as the sitter when it was consigned, or did you identify her? It came from a consigner we have a relationship with, who has a lot of expertise in the period and its images. He came to us with the attribution, and we did additional research. We were not able to find a previous publication of the piece, and we believe it’s unique and undocumented.
How did the tintype manage to go unpublished until now? Anything I could say would be guessing. It probably descended through family members. It was not part of her estate when she died. We do see this all the time–things appear out of nowhere, and we’re able to rediscover them.
I imagine Walker would have been easy to identify regardless, given that she’s wearing pants and a Medal of Honor. The object is small, but an aspect of tintypes is the detail. The medal is really quite clear when you look at it with magnification. It’s incredible to see that.
Have any other images of Walker gone to auction? What did they fetch? Records for Walker are very scarce. Christie’s sold a signed 1877 photograph of her in April 1996 for $4,370.
I imagine you’ll get cross-competition for this from several groups–tintype collectors, fans of early photographs, medical historians, military history fans, people interested in women’s rights… We expect that, certainly. It touches a lot of aspects of history in America, and it appeals to a wide audience. The conversations happening in the country now are relevant to the conversations that happened in Walker’s lifetime–what she could wear, could women vote, how we respond to women who have strong opinions. I see the line of conversation through history. Has it changed or not changed? She’s clearly still relevant. Her passion and her strength resonates strongly, and I hope collectors will feel that.
What condition is the tintype in? The image itself has not faded. I do see handling issues that are common with this piece, but the details retained in the image are incredible. I was looking at it yesterday. Her hands are clasped, and under the loupe, you can see the veins in her hands. The tintype format allows us to retain a sense of immediacy. I felt her presence strongly in the image. Paper images of the period don’t retain detail at the same level.
When I saw this lot, I felt angry, because I had never heard about Walker before, and this is how I learned about her–not in school, but by leafing through an online auction catalog. Do you understand what I mean? Exactly. I felt some of the things you’re describing. I feel lucky to be able to offer the image and expose her more. She was a bit of a difficult person, so opinionated, so strong, and so unable to cede to the [women’s rights] movement around her. It had an impact on how she’s remembered today. It’s unfortunate. She should be remembered for her foresight and her contributions. History is not written by women. That’s not new, but we can change that. She’s the only female Medal of Honor winner. She’s one of the first female doctors in the country. She’s incredible, and I hope we’ll be able to reenter her in our history.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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