I am fascinated by old photos of people. I love to study the expression on their faces, the period clothing and jewelry, furnishings, backgrounds. I think it’s sad that these family photos end up for sale at a flea market or antique store, no one left to cherish their precious memories.
For many of our ancestors, having a photo taken was expensive and could have been a once-in-a-lifetime event. Some had their photos taken in a professional photographer’s studio. But maybe a traveling photographer stopped in your little town or came down your country lane, just trying to make a buck with his craft. Maybe you had to check the cookie jar to see if there was enough “butter and egg money”* to pay for the opportunity to have yourself and your loved ones immortalized. Bring the chairs outside, the photographer would say, the light is better. You need a background so you get your best quilt and hang it on the clothesline, put the chairs in front. The photographer sets up his camera. Now don’t move he says, just look natural. A little nervous, you and yours freeze, afraid to even breathe lest you ruin the picture. After a few seconds that seem like minutes, the photographer says “done” and everyone breathes and stretches.
This is a photo of my great grandfather and great grandmother, Charles and Sallie Turner. Sallie is holding my grandfather, Carey Branson. There is a wonderful family story about this photo. Before the photographer took the the photo, Charlie said “Wait – I’ll go get my baby” and he came back with his fiddle!
Their clothing and shoes look somewhat rough but they were farming folk and this is probably their best. Note the ruffles on her dress, his suit coat and bow tie. The baby, a boy, is wearing a gown – not uncommon for the times. The baby’s face is blurry so he must have moved a little or maybe the photographer was an amateur and didn’t get every detail in focus. My grandfather was born in the year 1900 so this photo would have been taken in 1900 or 1901. I look into their faces trying to imagine their life in Pike County in southern Ohio at the turn of the century. The 1900 US Census lists Charlie as a farm laborer. He eventually purchased property but when this photo was taken Charlie and Sallie were 22 years old, married a little over a year with a new baby, and just starting their lives together in a rented house. This photo could have been a big expense for them but was something I’m sure they treasured. I treasure it, too.
Today we are all photographers. Our photos are stored on our cameras, phones and hard drives and in “the cloud” on WordPress, Flikr and others. I rarely make prints of any of my photos . Most of my photos are nothing special. But how many times have you read a story where someone, going through a box of old photos, finds a treasure, a photo of something or someone lost, a landscape changed by development or nature. How will the generations in the next centuries find our old photos?
*Cash made from selling eggs from your chickens and butter from your cows, commonly the farm wife’s petty cash.