Photographs of Sculpture on American Gravestones
An unusual but valuable collection at the American Antiquarian Society is that of the photographs of grave markers. Old burial grounds are treasure houses of early American sculpture and of historical and genealogical information. As Harriet Merrifield Forbes noted in her study on gravestones, "The colonists used their finest skill and raised their most enduring and characteristic works of art in memento mori." In recent years, however, these storehouses have been endangered by vandalism, natural erosion (hastened by air pollution), and theft.
The original core of the gravestone photographs collection at the Society consists of a gift given in 1930 by Harriet Merrifield Forbes. This author and pioneering photographer donated five volumes of photographs and hundreds of glass plate negatives. These negatives have since been copied onto modern film. The negatives are indexed in a card catalog that is arranged by town, with further subdivision by burial ground when needed.
There are approximately 1,260 negatives in this part of the collection, filed by last name of decedent. In addition, there are five boxes of Forbes papers, two of which contain correspondence and historical notes relating to gravestones and gravestone cutters.
The larger and more modern part of the collection is the gift from the late Daniel Farber and his wife, Jessie Lie Farber. Beginning in 1967 with a gift of three loose-leaf volumes, it has swelled to include ten volumes of photographs and approximately 9,000 individual photographs of some 7,500 tombstones. Cataloging data on the individual photographs includes indexes of carvers, locations, and decedents. Other data has been entered, but is not currently indexed.
In 1997 the collection of gravestone photographs, including those of Harriet Forbes and Dr. Ernest Caulfield, another scholar of gravestone sculpture, was published as a set of CD-ROMs by AAS and Visual Information, Inc. of Denver.
This collection, while not comprehensive, is very strong for central and southern New England, with scattered coverage of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. Also here are photographs of stones from England, the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and the Middle Atlantic and southeastern United States. Most of the markers pictured were made prior to 1800.
The Society also has a growing number of books on the subject, accessible through the online catalog under the heading "Sepulchral monuments." By building a lasting and careful record of one form of early American art and history, this collection helps to ensure that an invaluable resource will be available for future generations.
- Martha Gunnarson, former co-supervisor in the Newspaper Cataloging Project. Revised by Georgia B. Barnhill, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts