Archive Mystery Solved!!

You may remember that in the hot month of August, I retreat to my sewing room and work on digitizing our family archives.

My favorite part is the photo collection of Aunt Millie, a woman who was born about 1910, lived in Seattle during her childhood, and then Juneau, Alaska for most of her adult life.  She took tons of photos and placed them in albums with labels, but sadly, after those albums passed into our family, they went through a couple of floods.  My mother-in-law saved all the photos but couldn’t save the paper pages they were mounted on, so most of the labels were lost.

As a result, I have boxes of tiny, curled photos to scan and organize.  Here is a typical assortment, with the photos measuring about 1.5 inches by 3:

Group of small photos, 1930s and 1940s Alaska.

But among all these small photos, there were a group of five that were larger (3.5 by 5.5 inches), and professional-looking.  Two of them had dates written on the back.

December 1939

March 1940

January 1940

circa 1940. I think this friend turns up in other photos.

I couldn’t figure out why these were taken, or by whom.  I knew Millie had not stayed with her first husband (but due to divorce or death, I don’t know), and the only thing I could come up with was that one of them had hired a detective to track the other’s whereabouts — but if that was true, why would there be pictures of both parties?  And why keep them?

Then I happened to buy a 1979 book called Murderess Ink, which is a mystery reader’s companion to the work of female mystery writers.  And I started to read some of the older books it recommended, by authors such as Patricia Wells, Elizabeth Daly, and Charlotte Armstrong. 

Some of those books I liked; some I thought were boring, but in one of them from the 1930s, I came across a character who said, “Oh, it’s like those photographers that come up to you in the street and take your picture, and if you write out your address, for a quarter they will send it to you.”

I had two quick thoughts — “I bet that is where Millie’s pictures came from!” and “Wow, even by 1930s standards, giving out your address to random people does not seem safe.” (And of course I didn’t note which book, and can’t find the quote now.)

Turning to the internet, I found information about this type of street photography on the Vanalogue blog.  That author says that the photographers would give you a ticket with your photo’s number on it, and you could go to their shop later to get a copy.  Much better system!  And indeed, two of these photos have a series of random numbers and letters written on the back.

It seems like in my archive hunts, solving one mystery leads to more questions.  Where were these taken?  To me, the buildings looked larger and the streets looked busier than I would imagine Juneau was in 1939.  Studying the signage in the background, I was able to figure out that in one photo, Millie is front of a Newberry’s Five and Dime.  In the background of her husband’s picture is a sign with a very cool font, but the first letters of the company’s name are out of frame.  I thought it was “Leahey and Brockman,” but nothing turned up on the internet.  I searched the 1939 telephone directory from Juneau page by page (fortunately, it is very short!), and nothing turned up.  So these were not taken in Juneau.

Taking a chance the couple had gone to Seattle, I tried that phone book, and found Newberry’s, and Fahey-Brockman, a men’s clothier.

Fahey and Brockman phone book listing, 1939 Seattle. Source.

That led me to another post that shows some street photography in Seattle — in the comments there are more explanations of the photographers’ system.

Both Newberry’s and Fahey-Brockman were chain stores, with locations in Portland, Oregon as well, so possibly these were taken in Portland.

I have written more about Millie’s love of theater here, and shared some of her awesome car and truck photos here.  I hope to share more posts about her interesting life in the future!