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by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Monday, 30 May 2016
Walt Whitman and Your Old Family Photos
Posted by Maureen



Walt Whitman, 1854, Library of Congress.


What could a famous man have in common with your picture collection? It turns out, plenty! Whitman (1819-1892), an American poet, journalist and essayist, had picture problems you'll find familiar.

In 1888, surrounded by images taken of Whitman during his life, his friend Horace Traubel asked for details about a particular one. Whitman couldn't recall when, where or who took the picture and remarked,
"I have been photographed to confusion."

According to the Whitman Archive, Whitman sat for thousands of pictures in his lifetime. He was likely the most photographed man in America. On that day in 1888, Whitman couldn't identify many of the facts of those pictures in his studio. They were too numerous for him to say when they were taken.

His problem is one common to many of us today. We take pictures all the time, following in the footsteps of ancestral photographers who aimed to capture family in studio portraits and snapshots. 

Not everyone went to the studio just for family milestones. Whitman recognized the power of photography to freeze life moments allowing us to look back on the past. In some cases, you may have pictures that document a person from birth to death. There were individuals who, like Whitman, enjoyed being photographed, and much-loved children that parents took to the studio for pictures.

Unlike Whitman, we have tools to help us figure out when pictures were taken. Try these tips:
  • Estimate the age of a person in a photograph. You'll be able to group images by childhood and the teen years without too many problems.
  • Create a picture timeline of their life. A new tool on the market is Twile.com. You upload the photos, attach them to a person and a significant detail and within minutes you have a timeline of facts and images on which relatives can comment.

  • Not sure when a picture was taken or why? Research the photographer using phone books and city directories, ask family if they remember, and study the details in the background. My downloadable article called Hidden in Plain Sight will help you spot new clues. 
Who's the Walt Whitman in your family collection—i.e. the most-photographed family member?  

I'd love to see him or her! Send a picture of your "most photographed" ancestor to this blog following the instructions in our "How to Submit" guidelines



Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now


  • 1850s photos | men | Walt Whitman
    Monday, 30 May 2016 16:44:28 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [1]
    # Monday, 23 May 2016
    Memorial Day Tribute in 1918
    Posted by Maureen



    A quick search for Memorial Day photos on the Library of Congress website turned up this image. According to the cataloging record, the original was a glass negative, and on the envelope was a note suggesting this was taken by the National Photo Company on Memorial Day 1918.  It's a posed press photo of what seems to be a significant event.

    The letters on the women's sashes caught my attention. Downloading a high-resolution version of the photo from the Library of Congress website revealed the letters L, U, S, I, T:



    My mind immediately thought about the significance of the day and year of this image.
    • Memorial Day, a holiday that honors service men and women who died in the Armed Forces. Today it's the last Monday in May.  Originally called Decoration Day, after the Civil War this day was set aside to decorate graves with flowers. In 1918, Memorial Day was May 30, a Thursday.
    • In 1918, the world was battling in the First World War.
    • What event helped to turn the tide of American opinion against Germany, eventually pushing the United States into the war? The sinking of the RMS Lusitania, May 7, 1915. The women's sashes likely spell the ship's name.

    Searching for keywords relating to Memorial Day and Luisitania with the year 1918 on subscription newspaper website GenealogyBank gave me the answer. Bingo! This mostly unidentified photo now has a story.

    On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the RMS Luisitania, an ocean liner returning to Europe with close to 2,000 passengers and crew on board. Bestselling author Erik Larson featured the tragedy and the events surrounding the sinking in his 2015 book, Dead Wake. Here's a panoramic photo of the ship at anchor in New York harbor in September 1907 for its maiden voyage. It shows the scale of this vessel compared to everything else on the waterfront that day. You'll find more images of the ship on Wikipedia.



    Some of the women in the first photo sit within a large wreath.  It was one of two of the wreaths made for the Memorial Day ceremony. The story appeared in papers across country including the Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, Calif.), May 30, 1918:
    Down on the peaceful Potomac two gigantic rose wreaths were set adrift, markers for the graves of the Lusitania dead. Daughters of the American Revolution launched the first: the crew of a British warrior the second.
    In the photo appear both the members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the crew of the British warrior. They posed for the picture before they set the wreaths in the water.

    Identifying the details and the story behind this picture required studying the clues: sashes and the history of the period.  The answer was in the news.

    How did your ancestors celebrate Memorial Day? Read local historical newspapers to learn more about the special events in which they participated. Using the details mentioned in those articles, go through your family photos looking for matches.
     


    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now


  • 1910s photos | Luisitania | women | World War I
    Monday, 23 May 2016 16:55:08 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Sunday, 15 May 2016
    Counting the Clues to Solve an Old Photo Mystery
    Posted by Maureen

    The three parts to this German photo mystery are the caption, the date of the image and the family history information.

    The first blog post dated the image to the 1880s, and the second post discussed caption translation confusion. Please read the comments to the Caption Confusion post. A woman from Germany weighed in on the writing.



    Here are the highlights of the comment discussion.
    • Alex wrote that the caption is written in Suetterlin style and reads "An die Nette der Mutter ihre Schwester" which he says doesn't make sense in modern German, but it could be a local dialect. He thought the ballpoint caption could identify Nettie's aunt as the sender of the picture.

    • Susanna from Germany agreed with Alex's translation of the ballpoint as an indication that "to" suggests the sister sent it. "The person who wrote down the German sentence wrote it as she or he would speak it. It is not a dialect. The person who wrote it is the child of the mother in the picture." She thought it meant the photo was to be given to Nette. Nette is the aunt of the writer.

    • Leslie added that Grossie is likely a shortened form of Grossmuetter, aka Grandmother. Debra Allison, owner of the picture, emailed that the family used that nickname for their grandmother. She found it interesting that Susanna suggested Grosse in German also means a tall woman. In fact, her grandmother was almost six feet tall. 

    So who's in the picture?

    Debra's great-grandmother Antoinette (born 1856) immigrated to America in 1881. She was the youngest of nine siblings. She brought with her two of her nephews, sons of her only sister who didn't immigrate. All of Antoinette's brothers remained in Germany.

    The answer to who's in the photo relies on the ages of the people in the picture as compared to what Debra knows about the siblings. She's dug into records to use the process of elimination.

    Antoinette's eldest sister Katherine and her husband Philipp Letzelter had eight children. The second and the third traveled with their aunt, who was only seven and eight years older than her nephews.

    The remainder of the family stayed in Germany. Debra thinks the picture depicts Antoinette's mother, Elisabeth Wiegand Fichter (1814-1888), as well as her sister Katherine (born 1838) and her husband Philipp (born 1837). The children could be their four youngest ones: Ferdinand (born 1871), Victor (born 1874), Antoinette (born 1877) and Karl (born 1881). Two of the older siblings are not in this image. 

    If the picture dates to approximately 1886, then their ages are as follows: Elisabeth (72), Katherine (48), Philipp (49), Ferdinand (15), Victor (12), Antoinette (9) and Karl (5).

    I know that relatives who didn't immigrate often sent photos to family in America. It's likely that Katherine sent this image to her sons and her sister. She may have sent it to her sister Barbara, who also lived in Cincinnati.

    This agrees with the comments in the previous post and the assessment by a Miami University professor who told Debra that the image was to be given to another. 


    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now







  • 1880s photos | children | Immigrant Photos | unusual photos
    Sunday, 15 May 2016 16:34:14 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Monday, 09 May 2016
    Piecing Together Old Photo Albums: A Challenge
    Posted by Maureen

    Last week, I collected images from individuals who'd found photos in their registration goody bags at the National Genealogical Society conference in Fort Lauderdale. As the images flooded in to my exhibit hall booth, it quickly became apparent that this was an enormous photo identification challenge. 

    Would it be possible to match up some of these images and recreate some of the original albums? Maybe. 

    Bins and boxes of miscellaneous snapshots that were left behind when someone died or discarded are in almost every antique shop and photo sale. I've watched sellers at photo shows pull apart old albums to sell the images individually. They don't know that albums tell a story and that by taking them apart they are discarding the context of the tale.

    I'd love to have a photo album owned by an ancestor, and I bet you would too.

    For two days, volunteers helped me organize those turned-in images. At last count there were 75 bags of recreated matches ranging from just two images to one envelope that contained approximately 20 images of a New Jersey family.

    Here's how we did it. If you inherit a large box of miscellaneous pictures, these tips might help you put them in order.


    unidentified image, circa 1920.

    • Watch for writing: There was handwriting on some of these images. By matching up the script, it was possible to group pictures captioned by the same person
    • Album corners: One person designed beautiful black photo corners, the remnants of them were still on the images.  They became another group.
    • Caption clues: A person with a flair for poetry wrote on the back of many images, creating a rhyme about the people depicted. You guessed it.  This was a matching clue.
    • Dogs, cars and people: We watched for similarly dressed individuals, thinking that photographers often take more than one picture on a given day. Yes!  That was case, now the challenge is to recreate the order of those images.  

    There were pets in some of the photos and they also served as an identification clue.  So did automobiles.

    • Background: One family posed relatives in front of a grape arbor for about 30 years. It was their own private photo studio. Another family posed in front of a brick house. After studying other clues, it was apparent that this posing in front of architectural elements was part of their family photo technique. Both groups of images represented the same family at different times. Bingo!
    • Photo format: Early 20th century images came in a wide range of sizes, but it was easy to group pictures by the same decorative border, the quality of the sepia tone or those mid-20th century black-and-white snapshots with deckled edges.
    • Photo developing number: After examining all of the above, we turned over the images and started matching developing numbers (those stamped numbers) on the back, cross-checking by image size and people. This resulted in many more matches.

    It's clear that many of the images people gave me were random photos, not part of any of the existing matches. There is still a lot of work to be done on the piles. I'm hoping for a few more picture connections.

    There are still photos out there. If you received one and don't want to keep it, perhaps you'd consider sending it to me.  Email me for instructions.

    I'll be back next week with the third installment of the German mystery.



    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now


  • Vehicles in photos | women | World War I
    Monday, 09 May 2016 16:07:25 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Monday, 02 May 2016
    Caption Confusion in a Foreign Photo
    Posted by Maureen

    Caption confusion is a common condition. You may suffer from it. The main symptoms are squinty eyes and a headache from trying to figure out what someone wrote on a picture years ago. You can't read the handwriting or follow the cryptic clues.

    Maybe you discover that what's written isn't a caption at all—one of your ancestors used the back of the photo as a notepad or to practice their sums. 

    If you think that's enough to drive you mad, think about Debra Allison's dilemma: The caption is in a foreign language and she's received not one or two translations, but four.



    Last week's blog post examined the clues on the front of the picture, which dated the picture to the 1880s. Now it's time for the reverse side.




    Let's start with the photographer's imprint.

    George Schaffer operated his studio in Oberotterbach (Pfalz), a municipality in western Germany. This clue could narrow down who's in the picture if only part of the family lived there, but that's not the case in Debra's family. They all lived in the area.



    Three different scripts appear on the back, including a ballpoint translation of the German written in fountain pen, and a pencil caption. A granddaughter of the original owner added "Grossie's Mother, Father & Sisters & Brother." Grossie was a nickname for Debra's great-grandmother, Antoinette/Nettie Fichter. 

    Which of the following translations is correct? If anyone reads German, please add your translation in the comment field below this article.
    • "To the niece of the mother's sister."
    • "To the nice mother of the nun." [This one is definitely incorrect. While the family was Catholic, no one was a nun.]
    • "on [to?] the Nettie the Mother her sister."

    The family was also told the caption states that the picture was given to someone to give to another person.

    Caption confusion indeed!

    Debra has created tables for all the possible ancestors in this picture, with their life dates and places of birth and death. One thing is certain: This is not a picture of Antoinette with her mother and siblings—the life dates don't add up.

    So who's in the picture?  Debra and I have some ideas.  Watch for the third installment of this photo mystery next week.


    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now


  • 1880s photos | group photos | Immigrant Photos
    Monday, 02 May 2016 22:28:15 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [6]