The Chinese Steward?

PMM General Collection
1979.29

This powerful and unusual image presents questions. Included with this ambrotype was a note which read “Chinese Steward with Capt. C.F. Carver”. The plate itself was found in the attic of the Museum’s Fowler True Ross captain’s house.

Why would a captain’s steward have an expensive ambrotype taken, one double the normal portrait size? How would a steward pay for such a service? Would a captain have paid for a photograph of his steward? Why?

Captain Caleb Franklin Carver mastered vessels trading to the Far East from 1870 to 1901. But by 1870, ambrotypes had been mostly superseded by flexible prints made from negatives.

The subject is extremely well dressed. He has a ring glinting on his left hand; his hands do not look like they are used to labor. His pantaloons are figured. And the ambrotype itself has been tinted.

Who is he? Why did Captain Carver have his picture? Perhaps he was a trading partner, but there’s no way to confirm this speculation.

Why The Chinese Steward?
While Maine captains were well familiar with the Orient and brought back souvenirs, there are few images of the people with whom they worked. This image evokes the power and mystery of a culture which was still wholly exotic to American merchants.

Audio Commentary