I pulled one picture after another from the box and studied them. The old-fashioned clothing fascinated me, looking so stiff and uncomfortable. Finally, I came to the photo I sought. The ancient image showed a beautiful woman wearing an amazingly huge hat. She stood next to a man in a formal photographer studio, posed stiff and unsmiling. I exclaimed to myself, “Just look at that hat. It has to be at least a foot and half tall!”
A few years ago I inherited a large box of old pictures that were taken in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Some are of my relatives. Unfortunately, there are many I don’t have a clue who they are. When there were still people around who knew them, their names were never written on the photo’s backside. I love all of these images, even the ones I can’t identify.
Knowing the names of the people in a keepsake photo gives it more value. It also gives the pictured people an immortality that goes beyond just the one or two generations that knew them.
My family history project is slowly moving forward. Recently, a sister-in-law loaned a box of her family’s pictures to me. Just as in my family, many of the older pictures were not labeled.
Three 5 by 7 pictures especially piqued my curiosity. One showed two young couples. One of the women wore white, but had no veil. I showed it to my daughter Tammie and asked, “Do you think the girl in white is a bride?” The second picture showed two young couples. Holding that one up I wondered, “What do you think the special occasion is? Why did they have this picture taken?” The third photo showed a man and woman in a farmyard, surrounded by two black pigs and piglets. I observed, “This family must have been proud of their productive farm.”
A request for information about these pictures paid off. Siblings and cousins successfully brainstormed. I was told that the first picture was a wedding picture of John and Fern, Arnie’s maternal grandparents. The second picture was of Fern and her sister Hulda, who had married Charles, John’s brother. This information made me feel affection and a heightened familiarity with my grandparents-in-law.
The picture of the man and woman in a farmyard turned out to be Fern’s parents, Hugh and Aramints. They lived in Sac County in Iowa until 1919. Then they moved to Central Wisconsin when Fern was 17 years old.
Some information strikes me deeply in the heart.
Arnie’s paternal grandfather, also named Arnold, died of a heart attack in 1939. Marie, Arnie’s grandmother, remarried nine years later. While finding wedding pictures of both occasions, I discovered that Marie’s mother, Rosalia had also died in 1939. It turns out her death occurred 15 days before Arnold’s. Both were sudden and unexpected.
Losing a husband is heartbreaking, but to suddenly lose both your mother and husband two weeks apart is extreme. When this happened, Marie had four small children at home and the depression era was drawing to a close. How in the world did she manage? I couldn’t stop thinking about her for the rest of the evening. My empathy went into overdrive.
Unearthing background stories that belong to old photos makes me hungry to know more. I love how printing these pictures and telling the stories in my book takes away some of their obscurity.
Some information is forever lost, though. I can’t help wondering about the “amazing hat lady” from my family picture box. What was her life story? I assume she loved and was loved. She probably had children, if not before the picture was taken, in the following years. Her descendants may be totally unaware of that one fantastic moment in time when her extreme fashion was captured by the newfangled thing called a camera!