This Life...

The Mystery Photo

In 1982, when my Great-Aunt Alice died, the few personal belongings she had in the nursing home came to me. Among them were a couple of pieces of jewelry, a photo album and some larger loose photos, her art portfolio from when she was drawing in the 1940s and 50s, and her father’s collection of writings. Her father was a writer and a sports reporter in Chicago during the post-Civil War days through the late 1800s. The story of her father and mother I’ll save for another blog, but I’ll tease you with this: His writings included several semi-pornographic poems circa 1877.  Yup, there’s really nothing new under the sun, is there?

When the whole Cousins Reunion idea got started, I dug out the photos from Aunt Alice and brought them with me. They were a treasure trove of family history, except that many of them were unlabeled. Unless someone recognized the folks in the pictures, we had no idea who we were seeing. After looking at dozens of old pictures, dating back as far the 1860s, I began to understand how some family pictures end up in antiques stores. When you’re cleaning out your grandmother’s house of fifty or sixty years of clutter, and there are no names to attach to photos, perhaps it is easier to just abandon them. Thankfully, we didn’t do that.

One of the unlabeled, rather tattered pictures became known as the “mystery photo” and all the cousins took a turn examining it, comparing it to known pictures of ancestors, and peering at it endlessly with the magnifying glass. The photo has five young women, dressed in what appears to be wedding garb–long lacy dresses, headpieces with veils–a photo expert dated it somewhere between 1900 and 1920. We’re fairly sure that we know who two of the women are–one is my Great-Aunt Alice (upper right) and one is my Great-Aunt Ruth (upper left).  Alice, we verified with a known photo of her taken at roughly the same time where she’s wearing the same necklace she has on in the group shot. We did the same with Ruth, although she’s very distinctive looking anyway.

We have no clue who the others in the photo are or what the event is–we’ve considered that it might be a wedding since they’re all dressed in fancy clothes and carrying flowers. We also thought maybe it was a Job’s Daughters photo or a Sunday School class or a graduation. We seriously have no idea, but we’re kinda going with wedding idea.

But whose wedding? Which young woman is the bride? The one sitting on the settee on the right seems to have a fancier dress and her flowers look more like a bouquet and not a basket like the others–is she the bride?  If so, why isn’t she front and center? The ancestor she looks most like is Great-Aunt Emma, but we don’t believe she’d have had such a fancy wedding. This appears to be a really extravagant affair with four bridesmaids in pretty snazzy dresses.  Honestly, no one in our family could’ve afforded a big fancy wedding, so at this point, it remains a mystery.

We’ll continue to research this photo, as well as several others that we pondered over during Cousins Reunion–I’ll keep you posted if we find out anything new about these lovely ladies. In the meantime, check out the photo below–any ideas?



    • Nan

      Robena–thanks for the input–good thoughts all–no Italian ancestry and my Aunt Alice wasn’t a Catholic, but not sure about the others. I’ll check with my genealogy expert cousins.

      Carol–we’re kinda going with the wedding thing right now. A valuable lesson here is “write on your photos!!” Just names and dates and the event would’ve been invaluable here!

      Fokker–very good suggestions–entirely possible. I thought maybe a high school graduation. But if you look closely at the dresses, the woman sitting on the right has on a fancier dress than the others, who all match. Bride? Who knows…

  • Carol

    Nan ~ what a great find. My first thought was wedding or church or a debutante ball? The dresses look so elegant. Maybe they are all bridesmaids. Hope you solve the mystery.

    I have photos with no names on the back. I think the photos are my grandmothers. All dressed up and in the new frontier with the most amazing hats. I have several photos of my paternal grandmother’s mother’s wedding. The dress is satin, bows and lace and intrigue designs worthy of a princess. Tiny woman too.

    Keep us in the loop.

  • robena grant

    The photo is intriguing. I’m researching the early Italian immigrants to San Diego (1900-1945). The girls wore the (what I call lace shower cap hats) for their First Holy Communion. In one of my photos there are older girls in long white dresses and the same hats, (some with veils falling from the back of the hat) and in the center the younger girls are wearing short white dresses and those hats.

    I’m going with a church celebration of some sort, because of the baskets, (Easter perhaps) and I think this is definitely “old country” do you have Italian ancestry? This could also be similar to a girls debut, or coming out, but church related. Confirmation, perhaps? I’m not really up on the Catholic religion, so am unsure of all of the steps, or the age of confirmation. I do notice in my book, the more mature women wear a straight veil.