Sunday, July 31, 2016

Rescued From Obscurity, Part 1: A Mystery to Solve

An old nineteenth century photo album was rescued by one of my neighbors many years back when he moved into an old house down the road. The neighbor shared it with me a couple of winters ago knowing how much I liked old photographs. Oh yes, and I love to sleuth in the past for clues about these faces from long ago. This series of posts will be to share what I could find about them and how the album came to be.

My neighbor said the album was in a burn pile of stuff when he acquired the house. He was able to tell me who had the property before him (John Baker), but nothing to say who owned the album originally. To my recollection, my neighbor said he asked one of the former owners about it, but they just said it was no one they knew.

I loved looking at them and asked if I could make computer scans of them sometime. My neighbor was interested when I told him there was one photograph of a civil war soldier taken in New Orleans of a well-known photographer of the time. He took the album back with him and later loaned it back to me for scanning. It was minus that photograph in particular, but I cannot recall any others that might have been missing.

The album itself was in rough shape but the photos inside for the most part held up well with the exception of a few towards the back that I think sustained more damage by water and outdoor elements before it was rescued. It holds a mix of cabinet card and cdv (both paper and ferrotype or tintype) photos. Many of the paper cdv's can be dated to the civil war time period from the revenue stamps found on them. (See David Rudd Cycleback's article on early mounted photographs for additional information on dating old photographs).

I scanned the photographs as they were arranged in the album, with two cdv's from the same page frame. I scanned the backs only if there were markings of any kind. Later I took photographs of the actual album itself to show how the photographs in the album were arranged in the first place.

My favorite source and first introduction to researching old photographs and albums was Lenore Frost who stressed this as an important part of research. Frost's book is listed in my bibliography on the subject of identifying old photographs. One page 19 of her book, she writes “early mass-produced albums contained spaces only for cdv photographs, and after 1866 would often combine spaces for cdv's and cabinet photos.” This is what we have with this album. Frost also goes on to say that a “common arrangement in albums is in order of seniority, with grandparents or parents first, aunts and uncles, then brothers and sisters” although she stresses this is not invariable and that photos could be easily rearranged by subsequent generations.

After scanning, I returned the album back to the neighbor. Since then, I have worked on and off with the scans. I counted seventy-one total photographs scanned. I typed the imprint data in a spreadsheet and ongoing study of these imprints can be a future project. Only seven had no imprints. A whopping thirty-nine (over 50%) were from Syracuse, NY with nine somewhere else in New York. Two were listed as taken by a traveling gallery. Two had an imprint of E.C. Adams with no data as to place. Three were from Massachusetts (two from Boston, one from Lowell). One photograph each was listed with imprints from the following areas: Portland, OR; Ft. Atkinson, WI; St. Louis, MO; Adrian, MI; Chicago, IL; Oakes, Dak. (Dakota territory); Sydney (Australia).

Only six of the photos had any writing on them for identification purposes. Six out of seventy-one is not a lot to go on, huh?

The ones with writing on the back included:

15A - “Edmund S. Lancaster, May 24 1889, 16 years 10 months, Mrs. Killmore Oct 24 1889”
22A - “Yours Truly, Mr. A Parke”
25B - “Alice Cecilia McConnell”
26A - “Ellen Teresa McConnell”
28A - “to Vernum by a friend”
38B - “Sid Ballow, 15 W Van Anden, Entire E Bck yd, Feb 12”

Can you guess which one held the most promise of possible identification?