HBC has begun to collect accounts of individual American boys doing their First Communion. We have a variety of portaits. Some are idebntified, but many are not. We have obtained several First Communion portraits without any provinance. We can not at this time readily date or identify these images. The fashions allow us to make some rough guesses as to when the portraits were taken, but are not positive about them. We would be interested in any insights that HBC readers might have. We also have some accounts of First Communion experiences. Notably we have found very few 19th century images.
We have found very few 19th century American First Communion portrits. And the ones we believe we have foun are undated images which we have estimated to be from the late-19th century. This is understandable in the early-19th century. There were very few Catholics in the United States during the early-19th century. This only began to change until the Irish Potato Famine (1840s). And then after the Civil War large numbers of Catholics from southern and eastern Europe began emigrating to the United States. The numbers involved were reaching very substantial numbers by the 1880s. Thus there is no reason why we would not begin to see large numbers of First Communion portraits in the 1880s if the occassion was being widely celebrated and especially by the 1890s. Portrait fees by this time were quite reasonable within the range of working-class Americans. Perhaps a splurge, but not prohibitively expensive for many. We also do not notice many First Communion portraits in Europe during the 19th century. But our European archive is much more limited than our American archive so we can not yet make any definitive assessments for Europe. As for America it does seem that First Communion in the late-19th century was not yet the major celebration they wwere to become in the 20th century.
We begin to see large numbers of First Communion portraits after the turn-pf the century in the early-20th century. We are not sure why we suddenly begin to see these portraits after the turn-of-the century. Several factors were at polay. Incomes were rising amomg bith the middle-class and working class. America has emeged as the most wealthu ciuntry in the world. Certainly as a resilt of massive European emigraton there were more Catholics in America to have these portraits taken. Many were wirking class, but nebefitting by the rapidly expandin American economy. We suspect, however, that more was involved. Perhaps the Catholic Church began to give more emphasis on these celebrations. Perhaps it reflected the growing success of Catholics in America. We just are not cerain at this time. Nefore the massive emifiation from Europe following the Civil War, the only major Catholic groip was the Irish. As part of the wave of immogration, many from southern Eurooe we see many more catholkics, most of who settled in the major cities. We see boys dressing up in suits for these occassions. At fgirst they seem regular suits with fancy sleeve ribbons. After World war I we begin to see boys wearing special outfits for First Communion. Some boys wore fancy blouses. Oher boys wore suits specifically for the event. And after World War IIwe see more and more Catholics entering the prosperoys middle class. By the late 20th centurry we see fewr boys doing the First Communion in suits. The girls, hoever, continued wearing the juniir wedding dresses.
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