Louisa's chin seems to almost rest upon the top of the baby’s head. Although her eyes look directly out toward us, or more likely at the photographer, her face is turned slightly to her right—an earring is silhouetted against the background. The bright-eyed, round-faced baby’s steady gaze is in contrast to the blurred image of his hands. He seems to reach playfully toward the fingers of the woman’s larger hands, which hold him firmly upon her lap. Both are wearing small-print, puff-sleeved dresses—the woman’s has a simple band at the neck, and the infant’s has a large white collar. One person is black, the other white. One is female, the other an infant male. One is enslaved, the other free.
The picture from ca. 1858 is an ambrotype—an early form of photography in which a thin negative image is affixed to glass and then, by being placed over a black surface, appears positive. Placed in a small decorative frame, this is an image of Harry Hayward, a plump-cheeked baby boy, sitting on the lap of his nurse, Louisa. Records indicate that Harry was the second son of Colonel George Hayward, soldier, pioneer, mine owner, and businessman, who lived in St. Louis both during his youth and then later in life. Members of the Hayward family lived on Delmar Boulevard and other streets in the area near Forest Park and the Missouri History Museum for much of the twentieth century.
People in areas such as St. Louis relied heavily on the labor of enslaved peoples to build the city, work in fields and factories, and provide domestic work. The Spanish census in 1796 indicated a total population of 975; of those, 324 were black or of mixed race, and 8 were free blacks. By the year 1804 the St. Louis district, including St. Charles, was estimated by the U.S. Army as having a population of more than 9,000, of which 1,500 were black, and most of them were enslaved. By 1860, when the total population was more than 100,000, almost 6,000 of the 7,500 blacks were enslaved.
Images such as this one provide insight into the complex period of slavery in the United States in a way that was not possible before the invention of photography. The fine art of painting rarely captured intimate scenes of everyday domestic life, in which enslaved black women were often central to running a home and caring for children. Most often in the 19th century, images of either free or enslaved blacks that were depicted in fine art were not central but rather peripheral and frequently positioned on the edges of scenes. When they were the subject, the depiction was more often than not a reflection of the plight of those enslaved. Artifacts such as this become powerful examples of material culture through which we gain insight and are able to explore everyday life in the turbulent years before and after the Civil War.