August in the Archives
I live in Texas, and even though I usually spend a lot of time outdoors, in August, the heat gets to even me. So I set aside this month to stay indoors and go through all the odds and ends that need to be dealt with — scanning old photos, updating my Pinterest page, filing away magazine articles, etc. etc.
I collect old photos for the fashions. Last year I started a database to keep track of them all, in the hopes that once I really studied them, I would be able to estimate what year they were taken. Even though they are sepia-toned, I scan them in on the color picture setting, at 400-600 DPI. That way when I edit them in Photoshop (mostly just adjusting the contrast), I can see every little detail better.
Last summer I bought an e-book about dating photos, and learned that little things like scalloped edges on the card, or wicker chairs as props, can tell you as much about the dates as the clothing and hairstyles. So I created a database form, and I record the details of the photo itself — size, background, props, studio name and address — and of the costume — type of jewelry, fabric, cut and fit, and so on. Going through all those steps for each picture helps me notice things I wouldn’t otherwise.
Here are a couple of my favorites from this year.
The 1880s were the heyday of the studio prop. This picture is full of them, with a fake tree stump, a fence, a rustic chair, and two animal skin rugs. But the larger sleeves were in fashion in the 1890s. So possibly this photographer was a little behind the times. The studio name was cut off.
And I think this is the only picture I have seen that includes an umbrella!
I love this confident-looking woman. The wicker chair and her topknot hairdo say 1890s.
What is that on her lap?!! It looks like a bag made from individual silk flowers.
I love the swirly design of the studio logo too.
This is one of my favorites. I did one of my first posts about it. But today I enlarged it even more and noticed some new details —
— There is a lot of blurriness in the middle. Did the girl in the dark dress drop her bouquet? Is it some kind of sheer shawl?
This is the picture that the woman in white is holding.
I think I have posted this picture before too. I love it, especially the “deer in the headlights” look on the man in the background.
This photo is different in that it is not a studio portrait; it is taken in a home with a piano and lovely lace curtains. There is a stars and stripes banner on the mantel, and 2 long red, white, and blue streamers of honeycombed paper hanging on the wall.
With the long skirt on the woman in front, I would have thought this picture was from about 1905, but the little flag has 48 stars, and that means it is from no earlier than 1912.
The light-colored outfit has beautiful embroidery on the lapels, and this lady has a locket necklace and either a watch pinned on her shoulder, or possibly another locket — one to hold a lock of hair from each child.
The sheet music on the piano looks like it says either “Golden Triumph” or “Golden Trumpet.” I can’t find evidence of any song with the first title. There were “minstral” songs, Blow de Golden Trumpet, and Golden Trumpets, written in 1881 and 1882, and a hymn, Blow Golden Trumpets, written in 1887. All of those seem too old to be sitting around as sheet music on someone’s piano in 1912.
I would love to know what this group was celebrating — Fourth of July? New citizenship? Arizona’s entrance into statehood?
By now you are probably realizing why I only get about 10 pictures scanned and recorded each day! I love cataloging stuff and I look forward to devoting time to it each August. I can never actually finish the job, though, because as soon as I get one little shoe box full of pictures and papers done, someone in the family hands off a huge crate of more treasures.
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That is a lot of scrutinizing and pondering! Did all of these come from your own family?
No, none of these, although I do have quite a few from my own family too. I used to get them for a dollar or two at antique stores. Lately I don’t see them quite as often, but I have enough piled up to keep me busy as it is. 🙂
I really enjoy the steps you’ve gone through to breakdown each picture. As for the deer in headlights…hilarious!! Only one chance for a good photo back in the day 🙂
I know! That guy just looks so clueless. “What? Honey, you said we’re having our picture made? I thought you said we were having a pitcher of lemonade! Okay, I am gonna make sure my eyes are not closed in this one!”
So many mysteries in each photo. Do you reckon the woman in the second photo is in morning? The thing in her lap looks like it is tethered to her right hand like a fashionable fan.
I don’t think she is in mourning — black was the most fashionable color throughout the late 1870s into the 1890s, so most of the women in my pictures are wearing it. You raise a good question though — I wonder if people in mourning even had their pictures made, as in “Life is short, I want to leave a memento of mine,” or, if it was one of those activities they were supposed to skip.
I really do wonder about that thing in her lap too. She must have been proud of it to display it so prominently.
Utterly fascinating. I heard a talk on dating pictures and apparently you can get information by looking up the studio too.
Yes, I have found one of those websites, LangdonRoad.com. They list all the photographers they have information on, and then you pay a subscription fee to find out more. Once I have all my photographs scanned in and catalogued, I will probably do that to try to nail down dates better. They only have photographers from the states, but most of my pictures are from here so it will help me. (I do have one from London and one from Antwerp.)
I love that old photos can hide so many stories – probably because they’re so different from today. And I’d love to meet that lady with the top knot, isn’t that weird?
It’s a good idea to set off a month or so for the job. I have a ton of “administrative” work I never get done, I just keep collecting stuff and then it’s not used as intended because, well, it’s not really in working order even though I have themed folders.
Yes, that lady with the top knot looks like she felt pretty good about herself and I would love to find out how she kept that attitude! 🙂
I like how you group these activities into “administrative” work, I never thought about it in those terms but that’s really what it is. Having a month set aside works well for me because the rest of the year, as stuff stacks up, I just think, “Oh, I will get to that in August.”
I have themed folders and notebooks too and I mean to just take one and work through it, but I rarely do.
Fascinating to see the details once you start looking but they raise as many questions as they answer, which must make it a long job to catalogue them. I have a stack of old photos in a cupboard that I’ve only glanced at but now I feel I should study them more carefully.
Yes, I have to really discipline myself to just scan and catalogue, and not go off on too many research paths! Then I upload them to Flickr in case my house ever burns down or gets carried off in a hurricane. A lot of my stuff I wouldn’t mind losing but I would feel terrible if these were lost to posterity.
I’m feeling compelled to go and look at old photos, too! Like you, I have stacks and should make the commitment to organize and scan them, both for family purposes and just to really enjoy them. Your work just fascinates me!
It is so much fun!
I put them up on Flickr too, especially my family ones. That way, even if the originals are lost, we will still have a record. When I get them all scanned in, I am going to try to put them in order by date and put a fashion timeline on the blog.
These are all great photographs with so much detail, yet each leaves so many unanswered questions!
I wonder if anyone will ever feel that way about all the pictures we take. What will they notice in our pictures 100 years from now? “Wow, look, all these pictures are flat! How did they live without holograms?” 🙂
First they’ll have to find them all, up there in the cloud somewhere. 😉
“They must have believed they were sending their images up to the gods for continuity in the afterlife.” I think we could get a good sci-fi novel out of this concept.
Haha, yes! 😀
Thanks for sharing these. I especially love the one of the two women. I am guessing they are sisters, and the photo in the lap is an earlier picture. However, who knows their relationship? We could make up stories… 🙂
Yes, that’s one thing that taking so much time with each one does — you start to make up stories. I know I have read one novel that started from the author looking at old photos, but I can’t remember the title or author’s name.
Such a fantastic idea. The rustic chair looks like it was made from some kind of vine. Reminds me of wisteria. Very interesting!
Making chairs from vines — another project to put on your “to try” list? 🙂
Helpful with my own photos. I love the ‘props’ … many hands resting on many wicker chairs! Jane
I saw the same big papier mache rock from one of my pictures, in a picture in the book I bought about dating the photos! It’s fun to look for the variations in wicker chairs, or to see if the same one turns up in multiple photos.
Such an interesting post – and it makes me chuckle that it is your August project because working through old photos is something I put off doing until the winter! Your database sounds such a good idea. Incidentally I’m sure it’s a fan in that lady’s lap.
Yes, we often complain that we get our nice cool weather on the shortest days of the year, which means we can’t get much done in the way of outdoor projects, while those further north get to actually enjoy nice weather with longer daylight! 🙂
I put a sample page from the database on the post I did last August about these photos, if you decide you want to do one it might give you a framework. Or you can do like I did and just keep adding fields to the form as they occur to you!
I would not have thought about that being a fan! I will have to look into that, thank you.
Thanks for passing along some tips for examining the old studio photos I have, especially about scanning them at high resolution to better examine details. For some odd reason, most of my old family photos are of men. It may be that the men in my line run to vanity.
Maybe they were bravely going off to the front lines somewhere and their female admirers begged them to have their portraits made. Omigosh I need to do a post about all that fabulous facial hair!
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How do you categorize your pictures? I will now look at my old pictures a little differently.
Right now I am just inputting them in no particular order. I have made a database form that has fields for the photo characteristics like photo size, corners, photographer’s logo, props, etc., because those features help you date the photo. And then I have fields for the fashion characteristics like hairstyle, jewelry, etc. I am hoping that once I get them all input, I will be able to estimate what year they are from. I’d be happy to send you a blank form if you’re interested.
The best book I ever read on the topic is Dressed For The Photographer by Joan Severa — she analyzes tons of these old pictures and explains what they can tell you about people’s economic level and so on, whether they made the clothes themselves, what trends they were following, things like that.
Thank you, that would be great. I have old family pictures with names on them, but no dates. I just know the dates they lived so that helps some.
Where in Texas do you live? I grew up in a small town in SE Texas on the coast. It is Port Lavaca. Just outside of Victoria.
I live northwest of Houston, near Lake Conroe. I will send the form to your email address.
Family pictures are the best because you already know some of the story. I have some family pictures but I also buy pictures at antique stores and flea markets and then I make up stories to go with them!
I hope you don’t mind me commenting on an old post but I landed here from a tag search of cabinet cards! I think what seems blurry in the middle of the photo is a silk organza or crepe or similar sheer fabric ribbon – wide ribbon – that is attached to the bouquet. You can see through the dress of the woman on the left through the lower part of it, and above some of the flowers is one of the ends of it. They often used wide ribbons. I’ve seen them in wedding photos particularly, so the photo may have been taken after a wedding or, if like here in the UK, it may just have been one of the many photographer’s decor accompaniments or props.
The fluffy looking thing on the woman’s lap, in the photo above it, is either a fabric bag, with the fabric pieces arranged to look like flower blooms, or it could be a hand-muff. My guess is a bag, possibly hand-made or made for her.
Thank you! I checked out your blog and your work with these old photos is amazing! You might like this post I did where I played around a little with people from old photos and illustrations, just enough to have a true appreciation for what you do! https://textileranger.com/2014/08/20/imps-fairies-and-friendly-spirits/
And I forgot to say, I know you have a lot of photos to keep you busy, but if for any reason you need to use any of the cabinet cards I have posted, please feel free! Or let me know if you need a higher resolution image.
Thanks and that’s a great post in your blog, really made me smile (just what I need at the moment after recent events, thank you. 🙂 )
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