Knowing Susanna Adams Winn

[box]This is the third installment of three on the Winn Family Silhouette Album. The prior installments are here: The Winn Silhouette Album — Roots in Arlington, MA; Types, Techniques and Analysis of Silhouettes[/box]

Susanna Adams Winn
Susanna Adams Winn (1852-1935) c. 1860. (Courtesy of Arlington Historical Society)

In the collection of Winn diaries there were only five diaries for the decade spanning 1870 to 1880, two of which were written by Susanna Adams Winn, the youngest daughter of George and Sarah Winn who was purported to have created the silhouettes in the album. Given the time span suggested by the vital statistics and physiognomy of the subjects in the album, the 1876 diary seemed a likely first candidate for investigation. Beginning in January of that year, Susanna detailed her daily activities, paying particular attention to social calls both made by her and received at home and many of the names of those captured by silhouette in the album made appearances, often providing additional clues to the relationships of the individuals. For example, in January “Lizzie and her cousin Eugene Colby” called. Lizzie Day and Eugene Colby were placed on the same page of the album and a little more genealogical research established their relationship. ((The placement of these silhouettes in the album is consistent with the manner in which other related individuals are grouped, often with couples facing one another and families or relations on the same page or adjacent pages.)) The diarist continued to detail her social visits throughout the spring, relaying the mode of public transportation (predominantly streetcar) used to visit her friends and relatives and the companions that travelled with her, often mentioning the games and activities that took place during these calls. The May 25th, 1876 entry provided the proof needed to positively attribute the creation of the shade portraits to Susanna Adams Winn: on a visit to Winchendon to visit the Teel family, she wrote in her diary “tonight I took silhouettes.”

George P. Winn SilhouetteKnowing that Susanna Adams Winn was indeed the artist responsible for the creation of the silhouettes helps to put the album into context. As mentioned previously, Susanna was an artist and her art was often featured in her social activities. On February 25, 1876, Susanna “went over to [visit] Mrs. Whittemore and took some of my pictures for all to see.” As evidenced by her May 25th entry, she made silhouettes when visiting friends and families so that the making of the portraits acted as an activity and the album itself was an object to be shared and admired in her parlor at home. The method of making her silhouettes is also suggested by understanding that she was taking her craft on the road making it more likely that she was hand-cutting the images. A discovery of some partially completed silhouettes in a box of new donations to the Society in February of 2012 helps confirm her process. Included are mirror images of the same individual taken at the same time suggesting that she folded the paper in order to both supply stability when cutting (the same process used by Eduoart) and to produce multiple images at the same time. Also in the collection are several slightly different images of the same individual (in this case, her brother George Prentiss Winn wearing the same glasses and hat), that show repetitive attempts at cutting the likeness. ((These particular silhouettes were not included in the album but were tucked away in the back of George Winn’s 1872 diary. Curiously, silhouettes for George P. Winn and his wife Melissa (Bacon) Winn are not included in the album. There are two empty slots in the album near the front where the rest of Susanna’s family images are placed, including those of her other two brothers and their wives.))

Susanna Winn’s embrace of an older portrait type is consistent with what is known about her personality and interests. Not only was Susanna an artist, but she was also deeply interested in history. Miss Winn was, in later years, an active member of the Arlington Historical Society attending meetings and occasionally lecturing on subjects that she had researched. ((Note “Society Papers Read” in the collection of the Arlington Historical Society to see a copy of her lecture given in 1901. Topics were researched by individual members covering topics both on local history and on historical figures such as Louisa May Alcott and General Lafayette. These papers were read at historical society meetings as a form of entertainment and for the edification of the members.)) For her fiftieth birthday celebration in 1902, in addition to entertainment there was an “Art and Antique Exhibit” set up for the enjoyment of her guests in their parlor that included spinning wheels, samplers, and hand-made textiles belonging to her family as well as several walls covered in artwork made by Susanna. Understanding Susanna Winn’s fascination with historical crafts combined with her own artistic pursuits gives new meaning to why the silhouettes were created in the first place when other forms of photography were readily available in the 1870s as a way of collecting images of friends and family. For Susanna, the silhouettes reflected both the importance of family and friends as well as a means of entertainment when making and receiving calls in a time when maintaining social networks fell predominantly to the women of the family.


Carte De Visite: the Beginning of Modern Photography. (2010). Retrieved April 14, 2012, from Photo Tree:

Cutter, B., & Cutter, W. R. (1880). History of the town of Arlington, Massachusetts: formerly the second precinct in Cambridge or district of Menotomy, afterward the town of West Cambridge, 1635-1879. With a genealogical register of the inhabitants of the precinct. Boston: D. Clapp & Son.

Grier, K. C. (1988). Comfort and Culture: People, Parlors and Upholstery 1850-1930. Rochester, NY: The Strong Museum.

Jackson, Emily (1981). Silhouettes: A History and Dictionary of Artists. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Rutherford, Emma (2009). Silhouette. New York: Rizzoli.

Snipe, P. (2002). Paper Portraits: American Portrait Silhouettes. Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 4 (3), 203-223.

Stevenson, L. L. (1991). Around the Parlor Table. In L. L. Stevenson, The Victorian Homefront: Amercian Thought and Culture 1860-1880 (pp. 1-29). New York: Twayne Publishers.

About Lisa Welter

A life-long resident of Arlington, Lisa is a former administrator of the Arlington Historical Society and currently serves on the Collections Committee; she has been researching Menotomy/West Cambridge/Arlington families for the past fifteen years with special attention to the Winn family.

2 thoughts on “Knowing Susanna Adams Winn

  1. I am looking for more information on Susannah Adams Winn. I own a painting of hers…a portrait of a girl holding a doll and a kitten dated 1880. the title is something like “see my daughters ” I am wondering if her diary dated 1880 might provide the name of the girl in the painting. maybe she was a niece ?

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