Saturday, November 24, 2012

Bow Boy

Photographer: Fritsch, Charles (?)
Estimated Date: 1890
Location: Pittston, PA

Notes: The best part of this photograph has to be that ridiculously oversized, striped bow-tie. Apparently this "style" was pretty common given that I've seen a number of young boys sporting it in a few other photos. I'm not sure what inspired this fashion trend, but it is pretty amusing. Other amazing aspects of this photo: the ruffled shirt/jacket combination, that wonderful little hat, and the very casual pose against that chair that is nearly as tall as he is. The cuteness is just too much...
I wanted to find out more about the photographer, and given that "Fritsch"isn't a very common last name, it did not take me very long to find some juicy details. The Pennsylvania genealogy website has conveniently uploaded biographies of various residents from 1893, one of whom is a Charles Fritsch - a photographer from Pittston. I'm fairly confident that Charles took this photograph. According to the bio, Charles was one of eight children, and was a "slate picker" before starting up a successful photography studio in Pittston in 1891. He married a Jessie Hollenback, had one child, and attended this methodist church in West Pittston.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Unknown Family Portrait

Photographer: Unknown
Estimated Date: 1870-1880
Location: Unknown

Notes: Unfortunately I know very little of this photograph because there is no photographer or studio stamp on the front or the back of the card. This leads me me think that the photograph was taken during the earlier years of cabinet card photography. However, the overall quality of the photograph as well as the outfits worn by the subjects suggests that this photograph was taken in the later half of the late 1800s. It is possible that the photographer was an amateur or simply unable to afford producing higher-end, stamped cards. Typically, when I'm rummaging through old photographs at antique stores, I gravitate towards engraved cards because I like to be able to do some research to find out more about the photograph in question. However, despite the missing stamp, I couldn't resist buying this card for a couple of reasons: 
For one, there is a hand-written name on the back of the card. It's not easy to make out the name, but it looks like it says "Will Stealdman". A quick google search, however, indicates that "Stealdman" is not actually a last name - if it is, there is no historical reference of anyone with that last name on the internet. The person who wrote the name on the back of this card did not have the most legible handwriting, which makes it likely that the name is actually "Will Steadman", without the "l". Surprisingly enough, displays an overwhelming number of Will Steadman's living in the United States during the late 1800's, any of whom could be the in the photograph. Further research looking into which of those Will Steadman's had a wife and three kids may narrow down the possibilities. It is also possible, although unlikely, that Mr. Steadman was the photographer. 
The second thing that intrigued me about this card was the photograph itself - notice how the mans (Will?) right palm is facing towards the ceiling. I don't think that this gesture symbolizes anything in particular, although it does make the photograph rather interesting. A closer look at the photograph shows that the right hand of the infant in the mans lap seems to be blurry in comparison to the rest of the picture... perhaps initially her hand was placed on top of her father's open palm, but she moved it just as the photograph was taken, leaving her father's hand in a rather awkward position. Looking at the photograph now, in 2012, the open palm is almost eerie, as though the man in the chair has been waiting for over a century for someone to put something in his hand. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Suitcase Stories

I think that one of the main reasons I am drawn to antiques, thrift stores, victorian houses and so on, is because they all tell a story. Usually the story is vague and sometimes it's more clear, but rarely is it complete... there's always room for a little imagination. To me, gathering clues from artifact(s) is like taking the time to put together a puzzle even though you know ahead of time that you may not have all of the pieces. Even with the missing pieces, however, you can still envision the entire picture, even if it isn't completely accurate. The picture that I'm referring to, of course, is a picture of someone or something's past. Be it a man on a cabinet card, an old journal, or a room in a house - everything has a story to tell. Sometimes, you really don't have any pieces of the puzzle... often times I'll pick up an item in an antique store that I'm drawn to and there is very little to go off of (for someone who isn't trained in dating or referencing old artifacts). But that's where your imagination comes in! To me, just knowing that an item is an antique is enough to get my interest. The fact that the item in my hand was at one point perhaps something very sentimental or dear to someone many years ago is pretty neat.

It is for this reason that I was especially drawn to a recent article on Collectors Weekly. They wrote about an ongoing project in which the purpose was to investigate suitcases from an abandoned insane asylum in New York called Willard Asylum.

According to the article, the people who worked at Willard didn't know what to do with their patients' suitcases in the event that the patient had passed away (many of the patients did not have relatives to claim them), so they simply stored them in the attic. Photographer Jon Crispin got word of these abandoned suitcases, which had been at the New York State Museum, and started a petition to allow him to photograph the contents of each suitcase. It is clear from reading the interview that Crispin, (who reached his fundraising goal and will be displaying his photographs at the San Fransisco Exploratorium within the next year) grew very attached to each suitcase. Like myself, he felt as though each suitcase and each item had a story to tell. In the article he describes that sometimes the stories of patients that he uncovered were sad, sometimes scary, and sometimes even humorous. In a video on Crispin's initial Kickstarter page he describes the items in the suitcases in the same way that I feel about antiques: "they're not just 'things', they're parts of people's lives".

from Jon Crispin's wordpress

It seems that Jon isn't the only one, however, who has taken an interest in these abandoned Willard suitcases. Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, along with photographer Lisa Rinzler have also taken the time to go through a number of the suitcases in the attic. They've published a book, titled The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a Hospital Attic and they have an interactive website where you can see photographs as well as detailed accounts of some of the patients and their belongings. Reading through the suitcase owners biographies on the website, it shocks me how few of them actually seemed to really need to be admitted to an insane asylum. Of course, psychiatric standards have changed dramatically in the last 60 years, but it's still fascinating to read why some of the patients were admitted. Both the latter-mentioned website and the article from Collectors Weekly reference one suitcase in particular that belonged to a man named Frank. Frank was admitted to a mental institution because he had one angry outburst a restaurant over a broken plate. Looking at his photographs, I am saddened by his story and by many of the stories of the other patients. It is almost as though their lives were changed over night - at one point they were happy and thriving and then in a blink of an eye they end up permanently institutionalized. If they were not already ill during admission, then they became so simply due to anxiety or treatment. The staff at Willard, however, was known to be generally accepting towards their patients, so that is somewhat reassuring. 

These suitcases are, in my opinion, the perfect way to get to know these people, and Jon Crispin seems to think along these lines as well. The patients who were admitted often brought only their most valuable possessions - those that they held most dear to them. It is not through medical notes or just documentation that you really get to know a person, but through artifacts such as these. These suitcases inspire me because they remind me why I love spending hours sifting through dusty "crap" in antique stores or taking the time to learn about someone in a photograph. 

Every single person, dead or alive, has a story that deserves to be told... and I love being one to listen. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Bearded Gentleman

Photographer: Thorsen and Hartman
Estimated Date: Late 1800's (1880-1890)
Location: Illinois, USA

Notes: According to one of the better cabinet card reference websites,, Thorsen was a photographer of Washington Street in Morris, Illinois. . Thorsen, it seems, ran his studio separately for a time prior to (or after?) teaming up with Hartman. I have found quite a few photographs of cabinet cards with only Thorsen's name on the bottom, but not Hartman's. In fact, I only found one other reference of a "Thorsen and Hartman" photograph suggesting that this duo was short-lived. In the Thorsen-only photographs, his full name is written as B.B. Thorsen, as indicated on the LangdonRoad website. I know even less about Mr. Hartman; has a reference to three different photographers by the name of Hartman - two from Iowa and one from New York. Either of these could have paired up with Thorsen to produce the above photograph. 
The historical recreation section of the Morris town website shows some antique photographs of the town during the time period that this photograph was likely taken. The top photograph on the linked page shows Liberty Street in 1880; after a quick look at Google Maps, I found that this street intersects with Washington Street. It's fun to picture this gentleman walking down Liberty Street, as it is shown in the old image, and making his way towards Thorsen's studio to have his photograph taken. Although difficult to distinguish anything, I thought that a microscopic view of the button on this mans lapel may give us some fun hints. I saw what appears to be a faint "H" with what seems to be an asterisk of some sort next to it, but that doesn't really make any sense. The top part of the second vertical line in the "H" seems to curl inwards, almost making it look like a sideways "B". I'm not too familiar with the history of lapel pins (although I believe they were awarded to soldiers during and after WW1), but I feel as though the pin in this photograph must have some sort of significance. I'd like to think it indicates that this man was of some importance or high rank in the community. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

German Boy

Photographer: Samson & Co.
Estimated Date: 1900 - 1920
Location: Wiesbaden, Germany

Notes: This is one of my favorite antique photographs. This little boy is just precious; his blonde hair is indicative of his German roots and his outfit is very cute. Unfortunately I can't find too much on the photographer but I have looked up a few of his other dated photos so that was where I got the date estimate. The sheepskin rug was also quite popular during this time period. He seemed to have travelled around the country quite a bit - nearly all of his photographs I've seen online are from a different city. According to Wikipedia, during this time, Wiesbaden was very popular amongst nobles and tourists due to its thermal springs. The nice (I'm assuming) clothes on this child suggests that he may have been born into a wealthy family. Perhaps his parents were on vacation and decided to have his picture taken.