Old Photos, Real Lives

My Great-great-great Grandmother, Greta from Sweden, born when Thomas Jefferson was in the White house, died in the 1880's.

Tom has a box of old photographs from the distant past.  After his father passed away he brought them home. We looked through the box for a long time and were able to trace back which relatives were which on most of them.

The photos contained scenes of old Milwaukee stores and homes and streets where his German relatives grew up. There was Tom’s great aunt as a little girl with a big bow on her head. A tall, handsome young man was in one photograph wearing his army uniform during World War I. Also in the box was a notebook from his great aunt’s school days in the early years of the 20th-century. Seeing the pencil doodles and little drawings from her girlhood made me wonder about her life and hopes and dreams.

I love antique photographs. Every life has a story, and old photos make you think about what those stories were. Thanks to the miracle of the Internet, old photos enjoy new life as several websites feature these glimpses of the past.

I was surprised to see how far back photography really went. One website has posted many daguerreotypes, the earliest commercially successful form of photography which became popular in the late 1830’s.

This daguerreotype of a lovely young woman was startling in its quality. From the neck up, this young woman could have been photographed today. There is no record of this woman’s name or history, only that the photograph was from the 1840’s. Large earrings were clearly popular in that era. She seems to have been a fashionable young woman.

The website www.old-picture.com has a wealth of images of Americans from the 19th Century. I found that after looking at the pictures, some of which are startling in their clarity, that the past was humanized somehow. These aren’t drawings or paintings, these are pictures of real people–pictures so clear, you can see the softness or wrinkles in their skin and the glint in their eyes.

These Americans built our country at a time when life was so much harder than it is today. Boys had to be men early and girls, women . The little boys (playing men) who populate the celebrity headlines today would have been abhorrent to the “stubborn, old iconoclasts” (as Lowell put it) in these photos who helped forge America. The men in these photos have something in their faces that speaks of hard things faced and conquered. The same with the women. Life aged everyone quickly back then, and some of the women who look almost elderly in the photos were probably only in their 40’s.

I especially love the photos of children, like this little girl named Adeline. Here are little Elisa and John. Here is a formidable set of five sisters who sat down for a portrait. I wonder what their stories were? This beautiful little girl looks so sweet. The rule of no smiling was forgotten by this young woman.

What I can’t believe is the clarity of the photos. This one is amazingly beautiful. It’s difficult to believe that the department store photos from my own children from the late 1980’s and 90’s are already fading, while these darroguerreotypes as early as the 1840’s are so clear. I don’t think that’s progress.

Have fun at the Old-picture.com website. It’s an educational trip through our nation’s past. The curator of the site also has a blog with photo features and commentary. You can find that blog here!

P.S. Several weeks ago I discovered the photo of a baby sleeping, taken in the 1840’s. I was unable to find it today, but will keep looking as I wanted to share that one. When I find it, I will post it. *Update* Here is little William Mitchell McAllister dreaming baby dreams in a nap long ago in 1844. Babies never change and the sight of this cherub napping on the sofa on a blanket is timeless.

P.P.S. Don’t miss this photo on the site with a heart-warming story of triumph over tragedy that will take you to Jerusalem. What a deeply moving example of God’s love.

7 thoughts on “Old Photos, Real Lives

  1. Lisa Green Kentala says:

    I LOVE old photos and was just commenting to someone the only ones that may survive will be the darroguerreotypes! Everything from our lifetime – the Polaroids and such will fade and disappear. How ironic is that? With all the millions of photos taken in the modern age they could be lost to time and those few, precious early darroguerreotypes will still be going strong!
    Just a thought – that beautiful young woman with the large earrings – I wonder if she was considered beautiful then?

  2. Ingrid Schlueter says:

    You’re so right about the polaroids, etc. Only the slides of my childhood are any good now. The black and white polaroids are ruined, in some cases the chemicals just obscured the image completely. Too bad they didn’t make those daguerreotypes back when we were kids! As for the young woman, that’s a good question. Do you think the idea of what was beautiful has changed that much from then? Hard to think that she wouldn’t have been considered pretty back then with her glossy hair and regular features, but who knows? I know that weight ideals changed and the stick figures now prized would have been considered pitiable back then.

    P.S. My son commented on the fatigue etched on the faces of most of these adults. This woman looks both fatigued and sad. I wonder what her story was. She wanted her photo taken, and like all woman, wanted to look nice, despite whatever she suffered from.

  3. Judi says:

    I could while away many a pleasant hour at that website. I too find old photos fascinating. Thank you for sharing these here, Ingrid.

  4. Steve Shulman says:

    Thanks for validating my thoughts about a family’s need to digitize old photographs, color slides, etc. before they are unrecognizable. We may not be able to save the context of a wonderful print but we should prepare the content for future generations to enjoy.

  5. Stacey says:

    Great photos especially that one of the young woman you posted. That story from Jerusalem is really amazing about Spafford. I had never heard what became of him and his wife. Thanks for the tip about the blog and website. Very very interesting.

  6. Lisa Green Kentala says:

    I do think beauty standards change – though certain people might be beautiful in any era (maybe that young woman?).
    When I look at the centuries old portraits in museums of royalty or women said to have been great beauties sometimes I don’t see it. (Eyebrows and eyelashes were removed back in the 1700s – that could have something to do with it!) And keep in mind, the portraits painted were flattering in accordance to the beauty standards of the era – so the subjects may not have even resembled their portraits! The portraits were probably more “beautiful!”

    As for people looking fatigued – I’m sure they were! However, remember there was no makeup, or special lighting to hide imperfections. People appeared elderly at 50 or younger.

  7. Deborah says:

    Ingrid, Thanks so much for posting this educational site!
    I confess I wasn’t sure how interesting this would be … but the picture of the orphans changed my mind. I’m well-acquainted with the story of how the song “It Is Well With My Soul” was born, but wasn’t aware of what ministry the Lord birthed after the tragedy He allowed in the Spaffords’ lives.
    That got me to looking at other defining moments of history–especially the one about Lincoln: The Man Who Made a Deal with God, and Eisenhower: Eisenhower at the D-Day Invasion.

    I was especially curious as to whether Lincoln really did make that “deal,” and found a wonderful website that confirmed it, written by an educator who thinks as I do: “I believe when documentation exists, expecially primary documents, educators are compelled to share the whole story with students as long as the content matches the maturity level of the student.”

    For any others who are interested in learning more about American presidents, here is the link to this fine blog: http://www.american-presidents.org/2007/08/did-lincoln-make-deal-with-god.html

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