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Who was Harry Dickinson's friend?

John Dickinson was my 3rd great-grandfather, who came to America from Sheffield, England. He brought two sons, William Henry Dickinson and Harry Dickinson, and a daughter, Mary Ann Dickinson. (See the family's portrait here).

Many photos of the Dickinson family have been preserved and shared by various descendants, which has been very helpful in piecing together what we know about the family. One of these photos is a tintype photograph (shown below) of young Harry Dickinson (seated), with an unknown young man standing at his side. There is no indication of who the young man was. Was he a friend? A relative? An employer or employee? Could he have been a servant?

Harry Dickinson and unidentified man
Harry Dickinson and unidentified man

Based on the gentleman's facial characteristics, it doesn't appear that he was a relative, but I'm not convinced this companion of Harry's was a servant either. The family never had servants listed in their homes on the census and other similar photos from this batch show Harry with other men including his brother, William, and a man named Ben Allinton.

We may never know who Harry's unidentified companion was, but we know Harry was born in 1863 and it appears this photo was taken in his late teenage years, about 1879. This was around time Harry and his family left England for America. This period was referred to as the Gilded age, "a time of extravagance spawned from the profits of unrestricted capitalism".

Slavery had been abolished in Britain and its territories in 1807 and many entered the workforce as domestic workers - servants, maids, butlers, coachmen, or nannies. In Victorian England, it was wealth that divided classes more than race or gender. The poor, lower classes people served the middle and upper classes. Upper class households had several servants and middle class households usually had at least one or two. While servitude probably wasn't their first career choice, I'm sure they were glad to have employment and money to feed their families.

But was it customary to take professional portraits with servants? I did some digging and found that it was! Great measures were taken to exude affluence in portraits. They wore their best clothes and fancy props, but nothing proclaimed affluence more than employing servants. They were often shown standing, ready to serve, which may or may not have been genuine loyalty.

Harry and his father were steelworkers, which may have paid a decent wage, but I'm not sure the Dickinsons were affluent enough to employ servants. Harry's mother, Elizabeth (Reynolds) Dickinson, had worked as a servant in her youth, and his daughter, Emma, was later a housekeeper. By all accounts, they seem to have been in the middle, working class people.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below!

These documentaries on YouTube shed some light on the topic:

Regarding the lives of servants, see "The footman's directory, and butler's remembrancer", by Thomas Cosnett. You can read it for free on


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