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The Problem with Old Photographs

I can’t begin to tell you how many photographs are in the typical museum collection. Any museum, if it is anything like ours, has buckets of images from any number of time periods.

We have some severe gaps in our collection, but that is a story for another post.

This post is about how hard it is to identify old images. To say it is really hard, perhaps, is an understatement. For example, a particular image that comes to mind:

Cabinet Card by Lock Whitfield (Reverse)

Photos of the Past Forgotten

Some time ago, we acquired the image of a Victorian gentleman, a cabinet card in fairly good condition: no fading, no foxing, pretty clean.

From his clothes and such, we could place the image between 1890 to 1910. A broad range, but styles didn’t change as rapidly in Brenham, Texas back then. However, it could have even be dated 1915 and not totally surprise me. He’s dressed WELL. He’s in a suit, with a cravat. His clothes are pressed, the sharp creases are visible. The shine on the fabric suggests it might even be a silk suit. His mustache shines, and is in great form. He’s got a very professional air about him, an almost military bearing. There’s also a huge cravat pin with a pearl that could be the size of a child’s head.

The photo was taken by a local photographer, so we know this Victorian gentleman is local. We are certain this is a guy of local prominence. He’s someone that would have been known. We have a list of these folks we think may apply, people we do not have an image of. It’s pretty futile, really. We have no idea who this guy is. We’ve shown it to dozens of people, people who you would think might have the best chance to recognize the guy or the photo itself. No luck at all. It is as if this guy didn’t exist, that the image of him doesn’t matter to anything anymore. It is pretty sad, frankly.

This is not surprising at all. It’s really common. We have many images like this, so many with people we cannot begin to put a name to. Some aren’t people, but buildings. Some are events. We can figure out many, but not even close to most of them. They remain anonymous.

Let’s Remember to Preserve Our Past

I have a solution, and maybe all three-hundred-million Americans will get behind it! Let’s just all agree to write whatever we know on the back of photographs! (If it’s a digital image, put that info in the meta-data). Ok, so we can’t get everyone to this, we know. Maybe we could take all the old family photographs to mom or dad or grandma, and see if they can shine some light on these things. THEN let us all pledge to write this info on the back! All future curators and collectors will praise your memory for doing this, I promise you!