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Portrait, American, Chicken Lady, Carte de Visite, Antique Photograph, c. 1860-70s


Joseph W. Warren (1837-1880)
Nancy Luce [The Chicken Lady]
Fall River, Massachusetts: c. 1860-1870s
Sepia-toned photograph carte de visite in its original paper window mat
Inscribed in pencil bottom front of mat: “Nancy Luce Nantucket”
4.25 x 2.5 inches (106 x 63 mm), image
5.25 x 4 inches (131 x 102 mm), overall

Portrait photograph of Nancy Luce (1814?-1890), a farmer in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She achieved local fame as the eccentric “Chicken Lady” when she erected marble headstones on her farm dedicated to the memory of her beloved deceased chickens. The site became a roadside tourist attraction that she capitalized on by selling visitors photographs she had commissioned of herself holding chickens (such as the one offered here), along with booklets of poetry she had written about them. In this CDV photograph, Luce posed in a Colonial chair holding a chicken in the crook of each arm, wearing a bead necklace and a dark, plain dress with a white collar. The thinness of her face is accentuated by the kerchief tied at her chin. A CDV, the abbreviation for carte de visite, is a type of small photograph mounted on card typically containing a portrait, which were frequently collected in albums. CDVs of celebrities were sold in photo and print shops or by the celebrity herself. In this case, there is a simple gold ruled border with rounded corners on the front of the card, partly covered by the paste-down photograph. The back of CDVs are sometimes printed with the photographer’s name and address — in this instance with the name of photographer Joseph W. Warren in horizontally oriented type.

Product Description Continues Below


In this case, the CDV is set within the original 2-sided paper mat window, decorated around the opening on front and back with a border of three gold lines with rounded corners and an arched top. The mat is inscribed on the front in the bottom margin in pencil “Nancy Luce/ Nantucket.” The inscription is quite possibly in the artist’s hand as a souvenir for a tourist in Nantucket, but no other signed, matted CDVs of Luce were located in our research. Various poses of Luce with chickens are extant, some in which she’s sitting in the same chair. This precise image is apparently rare as a CDV, but was also published by Warren as a stereocard (see References).

Nancy Luce was an independent, entrepreneurial woman who lived on a farm in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Her eccentric devotion to her chickens made her a local legend. An only child, by her teens she was struggling to maintain the family farm while caring for her chronically ill parents. After their death, she herself was weakened by illness, which curtailed her activities. She became devoted to her animals, especially her pet chickens, giving them fanciful names like Gallinie Juanie, and Phebea Pedeo, and writing poetry about them that she called “hen-elegies.” Her first book, Poor Little Hearts, was published between 1860 and 1866, and complete editions of her poems were published in 1871, 1875 and 1888. When Martha’s Vineyard became a summer resort after the Civil War, she attracted tourists and sold them eggs, pictures of herself and booklets of her poems. Her status as local legend has continued to the present: people leave ceramic and plastic chickens at her gravesite; a biography by Walter Magnes Teller titled Consider Poor I, The Life And Works of Nancy Luce was published in 1984 and recently republished. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum mounted an exhibition about her in late 2014.

Joseph W. Warren was a prolific photographer during the 1860s and ’70s in Fall River, Massachusetts, located near Cape Cod. He photographed and published picturesque views of regional landmarks, building interiors and exteriors, landscapes, portraits, carte de visites and stereocards. He advertised his stereoscopic views as “for sale, wholesale and retail,” as well as “Views of Residences made at short notice.” Today his photographs are in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and the New York Public Library.

Full publication information verso: “Photographed by Joseph W. Warren, No. 2 High Street, Fall River, Mass.”

Condition: Photograph as mounted on card very good with the usual overall toning, wear, and fading. Mat a bit toned, worn and handled, with some light soiling, staining, stray marks and a short tear.


“A Finding Aid to the Nancy Luce Collection, 1840-1989, undated.” Martha’s Vineyard Museum. (24 August 2015).

Nadler, Holly. “Poor little hearts: The life and work of Nancy Luce.” Martha’s Vineyard Times. 12 November 2014. (24 August 2015).

“Portrait of Nancy Luce, seated, holding two chickens.” Digital Commonwealth, Massachusetts Collections Online. (24 August 2015).

Additional information


19th Century