A Cloud of Witnesses
This old photograph captures the essence of what I try to preserve in this blog – ordinary people, finding a sense of competence in knowing a skill of handwork — maybe even finding companionship and comfort there too.
Notice the handwork samples on the wall behind them. They are gathered together to show what they have learned, to display their work. But notice the ones who even as they pose, seem to be completing a few more stitches or adjusting the position of the thread.
Let me enlarge the picture so you can see the individual women better.
They are dressed in clean white shirtwaists, most of them with the fashionable pompadour hairstyle of 1900. But these are not fine ladies doing delicate drawn thread work or embroidery; they are working on simple, more functional projects, with inexpensive materials. Some are making baskets, and some are making mats, interweaving fibers without a loom. They don’t look particularly fond of each other or happy to be in the picture. What is their story? Are they recent immigrants being taught a skill? Are they women of questionable virtue being given another chance? Are the teachers good-hearted volunteers, or stern taskmasters?
These are the people I attend to, ordinary working class people, maybe people who didn’t expect anything about their lives would be remembered. Textile work is the language we have in common, the lens that helps me connect to and understand their lives. There is so much of their story I don’t know, but I am happy whenever I can save a few fragments and pass on their memory.
The faces are so interesting, too. In the last picture the lady second from the right actually looks like she’s afraid someone will see her. In other pictures some seem to be older and very domineering. A couple of them in the back row seem very young. None of them seem happy but then people did not smile for pictures in those days.
I noticed that lady too – she does look like she’s afraid she’s not doing something right. Maybe my idea of these ladies being immigrants is right, and she just didn’t understand what was being said to her about looking at the photographer or something similar.
Were they all looking up and to their right because they were told to do so? Any help from any museums around you? Very interesting mix of women.
Happy New Year to you and yours!!
I got this at an antique store in Texas, but a lot of times the antiques come from back East. I hope I can find out more about it!
This is fascinating–the photograph and your musings about the connections you feel to the women. I can’t decide if I wish we knew more about them or if it’s more fun to speculate . . .
Your deciphering of this mystery photo is fascinating. The women seem to be quite a variety of ages. Are some of the older ones the teachers? Wardens? It would make a great starting point for a story as I can see such different personalities in the women.
Yes, I love the variety, and especially the stout seated older lady with the little black shawl around her shoulders. She looks like she would be happy to tell us her side of things!