Thursday, January 8, 2009

Two Great Great Aunts Appear

Two unknown great great aunts just stepped out of the mid-C19!

Their tardis was an old photograph, inscribed on the back with their names and family connection. It was found in the old family home, built in the 1850's during the Gold Rush in the state of Victoria.

I know absolutely nothing about these long-lost female relations - so I'm finding myself looking long and hard at the image to try to intuit something - anything - about them. With not a stick of furniture in the room, I realize I'm going to be working hard, very.

Probably home-made dresses - same cheap cotton printed material for each. Were they not well off? Or is this the consequence of a colonial bush context? Each garment is conspicuously too large. So the girls could grown into them and they would last longer?

Is the younger girl holding a purse? Why would she be doing this? To say what about herself? Or is this just happenstance?

Does the older sister have something in each of her hand? Almost held forward and half open to show the viewer.

Dusty boots. Have they traveled in from the countryside for the sitting?

Okay, I'm done!

But I don't think I got any closer to these great great aunts.

Did I miss anything?

Feel free to focus any Sherlock Holmes tendencies you might have on the photograph ... and comment, pleeease!


  1. In the 1800s when cameras were less portable photographs were usually taken in the photographer's studio. Sitters were often dressed up in the studio's own outfits. This would explain the clear background and outsize garments. Poor? Not by the standards of that time if they could afford a photograph and styled hair.

  2. hey anon

    i understand that the photograph must have been taken in a studio - you are right of course - ordinary people didn't have cameras for all sorts of reasons - cost and so on - another reason being people only thought about having themselves recorded a few times in a life - no need for a camera for such infrequency

    you raise another interesting point. i have lots of old family photos (and have seen many in other contexts) - and studios typically had props that were used i imagine for all clients. the photo i have of the little girls' father is filled with early victoria chairs, drapes, a carpet and paintings on the walls. this photo seemed surprisingly barren.

    you make a nice point about poverty, tho curiously their father wears very worn shoes - we know him to have been poor.

    i think these photos were often a once (or twice) in a life time event which tended to over-ride financial concerns - there is a limit to this argument of course - greater poverty would be that limit.

    and that the girls were dressed and coiffured may reflect this once in a life aspect - they certainly would not be prancing about the farm dressed like this.

    and you may a very salient point in this context - the girls may very well have been dressed in studio costumes - their poverty would support this.

    and maybe the father (who wears a top hat in his photo) would be the same - he only used his own shoes - evidenced by them being worn right out!

    thanks very much for your comment! appreciated!

    take care


  3. One thing I sure as heck noticed, they don't look very happy.
    Not one bit.
    And we are talking about kids here.
    Bad home life?

    Or maybe they just hated wearing those dresses? lol

  4. hey greg

    yeah, they don't

    had imagined it might be cos they've gotta be still for so long - you know, those old cameras require that

    but the 'bad home life' scenario seems equally plausible - perhaps a combination.

    and yep those dresses don't inspire happiness!

  5. I took the liberty of downloading this picture and then showed it to a girl I know here at my college who is a fine arts major. She said the picture was most devinitely taken in a studio. The exposure times in those days were so long that body braces were used to keep the subjects still. If you look behind the girls' feet you can see the V-shaped base for these braces. They were adjustable, and had a large C-shaped brace for their waists, and another smaller C-brace for the neck. If you look on the right edge of the smaller girl's neck you can see a black dot which could be the end of the upper brace. The tartan pattern dresses were a reflection of the "Highland Mania" that swept over the British Empire as a result of Queen Victoria's passion for Balmoral and all things Scottish. My friend actually went so far as to look up possible tartans, and in her opinion this is wither Dress Royal Stewart or Balmoral. Both were used very extensively since they were both fashionable and patriotic at the same time. My friend thought the older girl's hands were simply posed like that. They never posed with the hands behind, and at her sides her little crinoline would have been pressed down, so she's holding them in a "natural" position in front. We both think the dresses were home made and not photographers stock. Just a hunch.

  6. hey joshua

    thank you so very much for taking the trouble with the photo - very appreciated! and thanks to your kind friend for all her efforts - please pass on my appreciation!

    i intuitively felt it was a studio setting - which seemed the case when i could imagine no other large spacious context which remote country people would have access to.

    and the clothes seemed home-made to me - i imagined a mother buying a bolt of material and making dresses (not too expertly!) for all her girls. of course the scottish tartan would have been the pattern due to victoria's love of all things scottish, including her man servant john brown! you both make a great point in this! and so nice to have your opinions about the pattern - Dress Royal Stewart or Balmoral - thank you so much for this!

    I was aware of the long time exposure involved with these earlier photos - and only thought of it here as being reflected in the rather anxious look on the face of the elder girl. but you are absolutely right about body braces - and i have heard of them to make the job of being still a bit easier.

    i have a strong sense that the younger girl is holding something -
    the pattern seems broken between her hands - what do you think?

    when do you think the photo was taken?given the tartans. and the elder girl's hair done in ringlets - tho in the far out countryside where people don't reflect current fashion i guess it'd be hard to tell

    heart-felt thanks again!


  7. One Who Lived To Regret It.January 10, 2009 at 7:26 PM

    Hi Nick!
    About the date, Allison isn't really very sure. Given the hair syles, the crinolines, and her gut feeling, she thinks 1840 to 1860. If the photograph is an original you could take it to the photographic department of the local art school and they could offer their opinion as to the date. Allison did say that you should keep these old pictures, especially things called tintypes, out of any sunlight. She strongly recommended having them professionally copied if you like to look at them and want to display them.

    Yes, we agree there's something in the smaller child's hands and it does ideed resemble a little purse.

    We were wondering if the dresses were made for the visit of Prince Alfred, son of Queen Victoria, in 1867, during his around-the-world voyage. Stops were made at Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. Back then Australians were still very British in orientation and the visit of a member fo the Royal Family would have been a once-in-a-lifetime event.

    (Incidentally, something serious happened to my Google accounts... they vanished! Poof! So I've spent the entire evening here rebuilding my email account and my blog spot. So the email on this posting is the new and current one.)

    (Also incidentally, I think you run the best blog on the web Nick, no lie. Just the right mix of wit, interesting things, and erotica.)

    Did you hear about the Baltimore Opera Company going bust? I live in Maryland and go to college in North Carolina, and my parents and grandparents were season subscribers for years. They just got hosed out of a couple of thousand dollars worth of season tickets. Massive bummer.

  8. hey josh

    yeah, i was thinking round about that date - but it was more simply a gut intuition and some knowledge of their life span dates and the ages they appear to be in the photo.

    having scanned the pic into my puter at the highest resolution, the family is going to put it away - you are absolutely right - they can crumble away without proper care - do you think acid-free paper is good?

    what do you feel about the possibility of the purse (or whatever) being a strategy to focus the smaller child and keep her from fidgeting?

    i think you idea of linking the production of the tartan material coinciding with the prince's travels at that period is right on point. there was so much other memorabilia produced - flags, transfer printed ceramics of a multiude of types, jewelry .. it just goes on

    and thanks for appreciating the blog - very much. it's the kind of appreciation that stimulates me on, really.

    i had a trogan virus not so long
    so i understand your frustration! it got past Norton and disabled it - luckily i had 'shadowed' my hard disc so everything could be put back, including all my programs. but such a waste of time to have to reconstitute everything

    take care and let's be in touch


    certainly the mania for all things scottish at that particular time would have been highened

  9. hey josh

    just a PS - say 'hi' to alison and thank her for her input - great!

    and bad news about the baltimore opera - the opera here is in trouble and has to go groveling to the government for subsidies to stop going under

    and heard renee fleming here at couple of years back - so totally mind-blowing performance - the perfect strauss singer - just WOW - i envy anyone living in the States and hearing her more often

    take care and be in touch


  10. One Who Lived To Regret It.January 11, 2009 at 6:09 AM

    OMG, I totally know what you mean about Renee Fleming. Some wealthy lady paid for her so the Baltimore Opera could hold a benefit concert last winter. I heard her in person and even though I don't know squat about music, and can't even read music, much less sing well; I still recognized an amazing talent. And guess what? I saw "Norma" in November with Ruth Ann Swensen and Hasmik Papian! Turns out it's the last opera the Baltimore Opera Company will have done. It was worth going home for.

  11. hey josh

    i was thinking of kidnapping renee fleming and forcing her to give many concerts here ... but then i relented cos i really wouldn't like doing jail time!

    and yeah 'norma' is pretty great - have seen montserrat caballe do it and was seriously blown away - in another good way!