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Holy Cow History | Dorothy Draper’s big debut | Columns


Dorothy finished applying a layer of flour to her already pale face, put on her best early Victorian bonnet (with a semicircle of flowers over her hair), and sat down in a chair in a studio near Washington Square in New York.

She remained as still as stone for 65 agonizing seconds, during which she could not budge or blink. He barely let her breathe. Finally, she was told she could relax.

As Dorothy slumped in her seat, she had no way of knowing that she had just made history.

What the attractive woman did in her early thirties would be repeated countless times over the next two centuries. She did this out of love for her little brother.

The Drapers were a happy family living in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Dorothy was the eldest of four children. Their father was a Wesleyan minister, which required frequent moves whenever he was assigned to a new diocese. All these relocations created a special bond of closeness between the siblings.

By the time Father died in 1829, Brother John had moved across the Atlantic and was trying to get a teaching job at a Methodist college in Virginia. Dorothy and their mother joined him there.

Dr. John Draper was an enthusiastic participant in the new era of science and discovery that was unfolding at that time. Although he did not get the teaching job he had hoped, this did not dampen his intellectual enthusiasm. He opened a small laboratory and conducted research, publishing his findings as he went, before entering medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. His sister Dorothy supported him financially by giving music and drawing lessons.

He became an instructor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where Dorothy served faithfully as an assistant. This was a role she happily played for the rest of her life. When his memoirs were eventually published, Dorothy’s drawings illustrated the book.

She never married, she treated the Jun family as her own. When his wife became seriously ill, Dorothy homeschooled their children. She must have been a good teacher, because one of her sons became a surgeon and chemist, another was a doctor and amateur astronomer, and a third became a famous meteorologist (who later named his daughter after his aunt Dorothy). All in all, it was a wonderful family.

Which brings us back to the story at hand. Somehow, amid all of young John Draper’s many academic achievements, he found time for his passion for the nascent art of photography.

In the late 1830s, a pioneering photographer named Louis Daguerre developed the revolutionary technique of using sunlight to capture images on chemically treated plates. His photograph of a street scene is considered the first to be shown to people.

Eventually, Daguerre sold the rights to his process, called daguerreotype photography, to the French government in exchange for a lifetime pension. On August 19, 1839, France issued the details of the silver plate as a “free gift to the world.”

John Draper enthusiastically jumped into the new medium. He is credited with taking the first photograph of the moon in 1840. While working as a professor at New York University, photography—particularly portrait photography—occupied his spare time. Which is where big sister once again (ahem) enters the picture.

When she covered her face in flour dust (to reflect excess light) and sat in front of her brother’s massive wood-encased camera that day sometime around 1840, Dorothy Draper became the subject of the world’s oldest known photograph of a woman. woman.

An earlier, blurry photo is believed to have been taken of a woman, but it was destroyed. But Draper’s likeness captured his sister with surprising sharpness and clarity.

It was copied and shared at the time, spreading news of the new invention.

Thus, Dorothy became the first to know how many photographs (billions? trillions?) over the next 180 years showed females. Her 65-second debut was a far cry from the dazzling glow of non-stop light bulbs that came on as models strutted their stuff down the runways, but you have to start somewhere.

The experience certainly didn’t harm her health. Dorothy was 94 when she died in 1901. She was buried next to her brother in Brooklyn’s tony Greenwood Cemetery, where figures from three centuries of New York history now rest.





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