“The Pictorial Bible”
Below is an essay that gives some background information on what the history of this Bible might be.
My great grandmother’s Bible continues to scroll up and across my computer screen long after I have closed down all my writing files. This persistent and elusive desktop image often catches my eye as I go about some other business. Its bright and distant pixilation instantaneously reminds me of my connection to Theresa and the writing project that she started in 1873 and suddenly stopped 3 years later.
There are in fact many examples of women writing in my family; all of them are fragmentary. A poem my mother wrote, her own mother’s teenage travel diary, one article by my great great grandfather’s cousin, assorted (but not many) letters and postcards, and my father’s grandmother’s Bible. Each of these women made a considered effort to reach inside and beyond themselves. Who were they trying to speak to as they carefully chose their words? What moments in their lives were they writing from? Had they perhaps imagined me as I now try to imagine them?
Theresa’s writing project was begun in pen and ink on the prescribed pages of this family Bible. Copying these pages into my computer, I can insert the image of her words into my own compilation of our family story. And although she has contributed only a few words, written over a short period of time, their very brevity and placement inside the powerful text of a Bible is itself a strong statement. My efforts here to rediscover the story behind her brief inscriptions is in some way a continuation of the mission she started long ago of saving her family’s story for future generations.
Theresa and William Sommer were married in New York City in November 1872. Their Bible was published the following year in Philadelphia. Most likely, my great grandparents, as they planned their future together, purchased this book shortly after their marriage. Or perhaps, it was a gift from a friend attending the Centennial Exposition in nearby Philadelphia in 1876. Theresa, pregnant that summer with their third child, would not have attended this much publicized celebration of the nation’s 100th birthday. She would have certainly been aware of it though, as she awaited the birth of her child.
When Theresa first began making entries in her shiny brass buckled and elegantly embossed leather Bible, the book itself, like her marriage, was brand new and glistened with expectation. Gold leaf decorated the edges of its pages and gold lettering on both the front and the back covers proudly bore its name, “The Pictorial Bible.”
Colorful etchings and black and white lithographs of familiar Bible scenes are interspersed inside “The Pictorial Bible.” There is also a special section of richly adorned pages designed to be filled in by the Bible’s owner. The first of these is a certificate for “Holy Matrimony” followed by one page for each heading, “Marriages”, “Births” and “Deaths.” Here are also several pages of small frames in which “Family Portraits” can be inserted. By filling in these pages as Theresa did, in sequence with a sudden and final break, she herself added another dimension to “The Pictorial Bible.” Seeing today what Theresa recorded and when she abruptly stopped recording, a different tangent to her life emerges, a tangent well beyond what the publishers intended.
Filling in the pages of her Bible as delineated by the publishers and adding photos as suggested, Theresa was conforming to the traditions and customs of her faith and family. She was in fact accepting the role that these institutions offered her. Apparently, at age 20, Theresa felt herself quite ready for this task for she began it soon after her marriage and no doubt planned to continue for years to come.
As it turned out, Theresa only documented the first 4 years of her marriage. In this short time, Theresa had given birth to three infants and buried two. Slowly, she had begun to understand that with each vacant line she filled in — the birth of a child, the death of a child– she was giving up something of herself. This gradual and continuous sequence of loss had not been a part of her plan when she first stepped to the altar.
Standing at the graveside of her second daughter, in the fall of 1876, Theresa was now deeply conscious of what was being asked of her. The overwhelming pain inside her body attested to it. In a time when few choices for women could be imagined, Theresa’s sudden break from writing and the compliance it signified might have been the only choice she could muster. When Theresa returned home that day, she did not record this infant’s death in the pages of her Bible. It was the most radical break she could imagine.
Although Theresa and her husband lived many more years together and after 1876 had still more children, none of these later events were inscribed into this Bible. Every time I look at these partially filled in pages, I wonder. What did Theresa imagine she would save by her first writings in this family Bible? And when she stopped writing, what did she finally give up wanting to save?
“The Pictorial Bible” of Theresa Leicht Sommer
Click on the images below to see an enlargement.
“The Pictorial Bible”
Bond together in the pages of the Bible were several pages of paper frames for small photographs. See the middle image in the second row above. There were 15 individual portraits inserted into these frames. Unfortunately, they were not identified in anyway. In my excitement to identify them by removing them from their frames and looking at the back of each picture, I did not retrain their original order. The identifications below are all assumptions based on genealogy, family resemblances and the photographers cards on which the pictures appear.
Susanna Mayer Leicht and Leopold Leicht, Theresa Leicht Sommer’s parents.
Judging from the like photographers cards, and the like style of these hand tinted photos, I assume these pictures were most likely takes at the same time. This suggests husband and wife singular photos.
Remembering the 1860 U.S. Census, Theresa’s parents were wealthy and could have afforded this extra cost.
Regina Winklein Sommer and Philip Sommer, William Sommer’s parents.
These photo cards and picture styles are also similar. On the back of one is written “Mr. Sommer, Mrs. Sommer, Miss Sommer.”
These young women all look very similar with their dangling earrings, their ringlets and their hair pieces.