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:
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.
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.
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!
I have found that during my genealogy search it is a very large puzzle. Put one piece down you have another question. I enjoyed seeing your photos. Good luck
Yes, I am so lucky that other people did the actual genealogy before I got involved. Now I can just fill in details. 🙂
What a fun discovery, but wouldn’t it be great to know the whole story behind the photos? Why were they dressed up, where were they going, etc. Interesting, too, that the photos are early in the year; being from the Midwest I’m looking for snow, so they are clearly in a different climate than I’m used to.
Oh Wendy, you sent me on another hunt! And I was able to find the daily weather for December 1939 in Seattle, in the Dept. of Agriculture Annual Weather Survey, published in 1940. And they said that that December was the warmest on record, and on only one night did the temp fall below freezing!
What a good hunt!! These were great photos, esp the car ones and the dog as running board accessory!! too funny. re, why were they ‘dressed up’ did peacefulwendy mean because of cold weather or the style. I think people always dressed ‘up’ if they were going out or downtown!
Yes, I think people dressed up much more often then, and Millie was a great example of that. She loved clothes and made her own. Someday after I have figured out her chronology a little more, I want to do a post of her very own fashion parade. 🙂
That is some cool sleuthing you did! I love the photos they look so cool and some of them sort of mysterious! Imagine if photographers were doing that on the street now – taking photos and asking for our addresses, that would not go over well. Little did Aunt Millie know all those years ago that she would be the subject of a blog post mystery investigation 🙂
If she did find out she would be the subject of an investigation 80 years later, I think she would breathe a sign of relief knowing how classy she looked. 🙂 I dread to think how pictures of me in our super-casual dress would strike people 80 years from now!
Yes but perhaps today’s casual will be really dressy in the future 😉
You get today’s Nancy Drew sleuth award. Do you have anything in mind for your photo archive? Possibly a story about Millie?
I hope to do her fashion chronology, because she made her own outfits and she always modeled them for pictures in the same place by her house. But I need to get them in order first. And then I think I will offer all the pictures to whichever university is in Juneau. But after I am done playing with them. 🙂
Looks like you solved one mystery! How neat!
My goodness, what an entertaining and intriguing post. I have a street photo of my mother from many years ago. Mom was born in 1919, but lived in Canada most of her life. Now I’m wondering if her photo might have been taken during her time in Vancouver instead of Nova Scotia where she was from. You’ve really given me food for thought.
How nice to have a month set aside for this kind of work. I’m so sorry to hear about the water damage. Sadly it is all too common. Great sleuthing. I hope to read more.
Yes, wouldn’t it be interesting to know if it was more of a West Coast phenomenon than East Coast? I wish a little more of the buildings showed in the background of my pictures so I could pinpoint their location better.
It works well for me to do this one month a year — the rest of the year I just ignore the containers of photos and letters and tell them to wait until August. 🙂
Such fun to see the fashions in those pictures .I’m so thankful for internet help with family history.
Yes, I am too. Thankfully other people have done the genealogy and I can just enjoy the fashions! 🙂
My grandparents were really into amateur theatre when they were young. Born 1919 and 1921 they were pretty close in age to your aunt. I have an entire album of their performances and friends from that time, I can see that they threw a mean party too… Fun to see as I’ve never met that side of their characters, they were rather more mellow in my time. I’m hoping to do something with those photos one day, a painted portrait collection, something fun. For now I’ve painted one of my gran into a painting with an old friend of mine from the 80’s, they’re both laughing so heartily I felt they’d have been good friends.
Oh, that sounds so interesting! I hope you have time to do this series some day!