Charity & Sylvia

Audrey Olson ’21 and Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021)

Unidentified Artist, Double Silhouette: Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant, ca. 1807-1815.
Cut paper on black fabric, cream-colored laid paper, framed in silk and braids of human hair
Sheet 14.6 x 14.6 cm (5 ¾ x 5 ¾ in.)
Collection of Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, 1979.325 

The Double Silhouette: Sylvia Drake and Charity Bryant from the Henry Sheldon Museum is an example of the elegant hairwork of the 19th century and the art of the silhouette, evoking the story of two remarkable women. Two women appear to face each other, seen in profile. They have nearly matching hairstyles and only the most subtle differences in appearance.The figure on the right is said to represent Charity (1777-1851), a slightly broader figure with the faint suggestion of a double chin; the more delicate figure on the left is said to be Sylvia (1784-1868).1 There is a difference, too, in the orientation of the faint lines of the laid paper; that of the left silhouette is aligned vertically, while the right side has been cut with the thin lines of the paper horizontally parallel to one another. Each silhouette with its cut paper reveals coarse black fabric beneath; a delicate layer of pink silk, now fading, borders the two women. Whisper-thin braids of light brown or blonde hair twine around the curving edges of the silk, looping and undulating and, where the two pages of the women’s profiles meet, forming a heart-like shape.

Historian Rachel Hope Cleves’s 2014 book Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America explores the intertwined lives of these two women and their roles in the small town of Weybridge, Vermont. In letters and poems, the women expressed their love for one another, often using metaphors that evoke their silhouette portrait with its surrounding braided hair: the two women were encircled “‘by every gentle tie/ That binds the tender heart,'” as Byrant’s 1808 poem declared (qtd. in Cleves, 105). Charity and Sylvia met in 1807 and shortly thereafter established a partnership that both they and others recognized as akin to marriage. As Bryant recorded in her memoir, “‘on the 3rd day of July 1807… [Sylvia Drake] consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion'” (qtd. in Cleves, 101). Nephew William Cullen Bryant wrote of their partnership:

“If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sickness; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them….”2

In the 19th century, saving locks of hair was a way to memorialize or remember people and rites of passage, whether to commemorate a child’s first haircut or to remember a lost loved one. The hair in this piece is symbolic of the relationship of Charity and Sylvia as it is braided together. Cleves interprets the frame of braided hair as echoing the form of a vine, an emblem of household happiness, and one that also evokes the climbing roses that grew by their cottage (Cleves, 114). The lower register of the work has been damaged in the intervening years; the pattern of holes and remaining hair suggest it also might have featured intertwined and curving braids of the women’s hair. Charity and Sylvia ran a tailoring business, and their facility with needlework might have contributed to the technique with which this hairwork is crafted and sewn to its paper support.

Gravestone of Sylvia Drake & Charity Bryant, Weybridge Hill Cemetery.

The silhouettes were presumably cut by a traveling portrait artist, now unknown. The work creates an interesting play of representation, depicting the women (and their hair) in silhouette, with delicately curling wisps of hair at the nape of their necks and bangs at their foreheads in counterpoint to the inclusion of strands of their actual hair. This double-signification is especially compelling at a time before photography, when the silhouette was perceived as the most accurate representation of a person in its copied trace of the outlines of their profiles.3 Conversely, the silhouette’s simplified forms and lack of color or shading could also be seen as mysterious, not being what first appears to meet the eye– an association that could suggest their shared, “open secret” of love or the many unanswered questions we might still have about their lives.

As Cleves notes, “Charity and Sylvia gained the toleration of their relatives and community not by hiding away but by being public minded.”4 Their relationship lasted over 44 years, from the time of their meeting in 1807 until Charity’s death in 1851. The two women are buried together, sharing one tombstone that further commemorates their life together; Cleves suggests that the Drake family’s decision to have the women’s names embossed on a shared monument indicated their respect for their relationship, setting it in stone for it to be seen by the world.5

This silhouette helps to tell a story that needs to be told. It helped to inspire Rachel Hope Cleves’s book (2014) and is speculated to have contributed to the court cases in legalizing same sex marriage in all states in America in 2015. Hairwork was incredibly important in the 19th century and now, two centuries later, it is still meaningful, able to evoke the history and lives of people from the past.

Detail, hairwork and charm in form of a book
Detail, Hairwork chain with charm in the form of a book, n.d. Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Middlebury, VT. Gift of Mrs. Frances A. Waite, 1968, 68.20.b.

Cite this essay: Audrey Olson and Ellery Foutch, “Charity & Sylvia” in Perspectives on Hairwork: Historic Vermont, ed. Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021): [date accessed]


1. ​Rachel Hope Cleves, ​Charity & Sylvia: a Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014),​ ix.

2. William Cullen Bryant, Letters of a Traveller, or Notes of Things Seen in Europe and America (New York: George G. Putnam, 1850), 136, qtd. in Cleves, xiv-xv).

3. See Wendy Bellion, “The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America,” MIT Media in Transition 1999 (link); Wendy Bellion, “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America,” in Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (eds.), New Media, 1740–1915 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 31–59; Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, “‘Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles’: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149, no. 1 (March 2005): 23–39; David Hansen, “Skin and Bone: Surface and Substance in Anglo-Colonial Portraiture,” British Art Studies Issue 15 (February 2020):

4 . Cleves, ​Charity & Sylvia, ​ xiii.

5. Cleves, ​Charity & Sylvia, 195.


Balik, Shelby M. “‘Dear Christian Friends’: Charity Bryant, Sylvia Drake, and the Making of a Spiritual Network.” ​Journal of Social History​ 50, no. 4 (2017): 630–54.​.

Bellion, Wendy. “Heads of State: Profiles and Politics in Jeffersonian America,” in New Media, 1740–1915. Edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003, 31–59.

Bellion, Wendy. “The Mechanization of Likeness in Jeffersonian America,” MIT Media in Transition 1999: link

Bercaw, Nancy Dunlap. “Solid Objects/Mutable Meanings: Fancywork and the Construction of Bourgeois Culture, 1840-1880.” ​Winterthur Portfolio​ 26, no. 4 (1991): 231–47.​.

Cascone, Sarah. “A Rare Image of One of the Earliest Known Same-Sex Unions Goes on View at the Smithsonian.” Artnet News. Artnet News, August 7, 2018.​.

Catlin, Roger. “Rarely Seen 19th-Century Silhouette of a Same-Sex Couple Living Together Goes On View.” Smithsonian Institution, May 25, 2018. uette-same-sex-couple-living-together-goes-view-180969156/​

“Charity Bryant (1777-1851) – Find A Grave…” Find a Grave. Accessed February 2021.​.

Cleves, Rachel Hope. ​Charity and Sylvia: a Same-Sex Marriage in Early America​. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. ​ISBN 978-0-19-933542-8.

Davidenko, Nicolas. “Silhouetted Face Profiles: A New Methodology for Face Perception Research.” Journal of Vision. The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, March 1, 2007.​.

Hansen, David. “Skin and Bone: Surface and Substance in Anglo-Colonial Portraiture,” British Art Studies Issue 15 (February 2020):

Naeem, Asma. Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. Washington, DC: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery/Princeton University Press, 2018.

Popova, Maria. “Charity and Sylvia: The Remarkable Story of How Two Women Married Each Other in Early America.” Brain Pickings, August 13, 2016.​.

Shaw, Gwendolyn DuBois. “‘Moses Williams, Cutter of Profiles’: Silhouettes and African American Identity in the Early Republic,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149, no. 1 (March 2005): 23–39.

“Silhouettes.” Henry Sheldon Museum. Accessed February 2021.​.