“In beauty and durability, no sun drawn picture equals a good daguerreotype.”
That was her promise of quality assurance whenever Rebecca Ann Reynolds advertised her downtown studio in the American Volunteer, a Carlisle newspaper.
As an entrepreneur and artist, Reynolds was one of the first women to become a professional photographer in Pennsylvania, local historian Sandy Mader wrote in a 2003 journal article for the Cumberland County Historical Society.
The photo archives of the historical society has a complete biographical file on Reynolds who was born Rebecca Ann Mason on Sept. 2, 1822, according to the records of the First Presbyterian Church on the Square in Carlisle.
The future daguerreotypist was the daughter of William and Mary (Flanagan) Mason of South Middleton Township. She was confirmed at the church on May 3, 1833 and became a member in 1834.
The family later moved to Carlisle where William worked as a shoemaker. Rebecca lived in Carlisle until age 24 when she married Benjamin Reynolds, 62, of Shippensburg on Jan. 21, 1847. Reynolds died two years later, leaving behind his young wife and infant son, William, who was born in 1848.
An obituary in the Feb. 1, 1849 edition of The Weekly News of Shippensburg described Benjamin Reynolds as a “devoted husband and indulgent father” who was involved in business transactions and elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly as a representative out of Franklin County. He was also an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Shippensburg.
Following her husband’s death, Rebecca Reynolds moved to Carlisle to live with her parents. There is then a gap in the historical record with no details on how Rebecca Reynolds became interested in photography.
Coming into focus
The next reference is a classified ad that was dated April 12, 1855, and published in a local newspaper. In it, Reynolds announced that she had recently moved her daguerreotype studio from the southeast corner of Hanover and Louther streets to the southwest corner over a store that sold cabinets.
Reynolds promised her customers that “she can furnish them with likenesses which for truthfulness and beauty cannot be excelled.” There was mention that she had been trained by one of the best studios in Philadelphia. The studio had another selling point:
“[There are] Prices to suit all,” the ad reads. “Those who would be economical as well as those who desire to invest a little more largely.”
A savvy business owner, Reynolds kept up with current trends as evident in an ad dated Feb. 14, 1856, published in the Carlisle American, another local newspaper. In it, Reynolds announced that she had recently returned to Carlisle from Philadelphia where she was trained for weeks in the emerging art of ambrotype photography.
The ad defined this technique as “taking a likeness on glass” and claimed that the images “have only to be seen to be admired by all lovers of pretty pictures.” The training took place in a studio that sported some of the best artistic talent in Philadelphia in various forms of photography.
“Her course of instruction has been full and complete ... and the gentlemanly proprietor and operators spared no pains to give her an intelligent knowledge of the art,” the ad reads. “She therefore feels confident of being able to perform all she promises, when that promise is to furnish as good ambrotypes, as well as daguerreotypes, as can be produced elsewhere.”
The 1856 ad touted advantages ambrotype photography had over daguerreotype. “The ambrotype can be seen in any light, is not subject to change, dampness having no effect on it,” the ad reads. “In fact there is no way to destroy a real ambrotype when finished, but by breaking the glass.”
Abundance of light
From December 1859 to October 1863, she routinely advertised her photography studio in the American Volunteer, promising quality daguerreotype images. On June 6, 1861, Reynolds married William Gayley Smith of Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe in Carbon County).
While she operated her business in Carlisle, her brother, Holmes Mason, who was 14 years younger, fought for the North in the Civil War. He died of tuberculosis in March 1864 after illness forced an end to his military service and a return to Carlisle.
About two months later, on May 20, 1864, Rebecca Ann Smith ran an ad in a local newspaper announcing that she had bought the photography studio of Charles A. Saylor in the southwest corner of the Square. As part of the acquisition, she retained the services of a Mr. Lochman who was Saylor’s principal artist since early 1863.
Other selling points mentioned in the ad include an “abundance of light,” “pleasant rooms” and “pictures taken in all kinds of weather.” She even offered to furnish copies of negatives taken by Saylor at reduced prices to his customers.
Seven months later, an ad dated Dec. 23, 1864, mentioned the address of her studio as the southeast corner of Hanover and the Market Square opposite the Old Courthouse and the post office.
Just in time for the holiday shopping season, her studio offered the choicest, prettiest and cheapest albums for ladies, gentlemen, misses and children. There were pocket albums available for soldiers and civilians, as well as ambrotype images that could be inserted into rings, lockets and breast pins.
“Where copies are defaced, lifelike pictures may still be had, either for frames or for cards,” the ad reads. “All negatives preserved one year and orders by mail promptly attended to.”
Rebecca Ann Smith was not the only enterprising business type in the family. Before her second husband William died in 1867, he included language in his will that left Rebecca with all title and interest in his New Improved Photograph Rack, patented Dec. 27, 1864, and one half of the proceeds of the Patent Right for a Railroad Car Spittoon that was pending in the Patent Office.
Rebecca Smith is listed in the Cumberland Valley Railroad Directory for 1877-78 as having a business at 3 S. Hanover St., and a home at 23 W. Louther St. She died in Harrisburg on Sept. 26, 1882, after a brief illness. Aside from being a photographer, she was best known in Carlisle as the principal of the infant department of the First Presbyterian Church Sunday School.
Her son William Reynolds was listed as a doctor in Newville in the directory for 1914-15. Like her younger brother, photographer Rebecca Ann Reynolds Smith is buried in the Old Graveyard on South Street in Carlisle.