Photo context: treasures in the details

Genealogical riches in photo contextIn a photo of my great-grandparents, I happened to notice on the dresser behind them what looked like a tobacco container. Was I seeing a throwback to childhood pranks? Prince Albert in a can? I scanned the photo at high resolution and zoomed in. It was Prince Albert. I began to wonder what else I might see in the photo context. In one detail after another, my ancestors’ world came into focus. 

A photo of Danny and Oper

Danny died when I was six, Oper when I was seven. I remember only a few things about them. She was a frail little thing in her old age. I remember at age five accidentally opening a Christmas gift meant for her. That’s all I remember.

He loved cornbread soaked with buttermilk and made baskets. He wore a straw hat with a green visor in the hot Alabama summers, and drove a green pickup truck.

Photo context subjects Clara Dennis Mayberry Payne and Otha Irvin Payne in their Chilton County, Alabama, farmhouse ca. 1950We called my great-grandmother Danny, carrying on the tradition started by my Aunt Betty, their first granddaughter, who could not say “Granny.” She heard people calling my great-grandfather Otha, and from her baby lips, it became Oper, and stuck. Clara Dennis Mayberry Payne (Danny) and Otha Irvin Payne (Oper) lived out most of their lives in Chilton County, Alabama.

In this photo, they look perhaps ten or fifteen years younger than I remember them. This must be around 1950.

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Photo context: the dresser

I’ve seen this photo many times, but it did not occur to me that I should look beyond the faces. Zooming in to find the Prince Albert tobacco, however, I started to recall things. Oper smoked a pipe. I remembered the smell, and him striking the pipe against his palm to tamp down the tobacco.

Photo Context subject -- Zoom in on dresserWhile looking at the can, I started to notice other items on the dresser. A matchbox looking very much like the ones we still use. A striped box. A bottle that might be aftershave. An ornate jar. My adventure in photo context analysis had begun.

I went over every section of the room. I found myself immersed in their lives — a genuine shapshot of a moment around 1950 when these two dear ones were sitting together in their bedroom on the farm.

As I prepared to write this post, I started emailing some image fragments, blown up large, to my mother and my Aunt Carolyn to see if they could fill in some gaps for me on things I couldn’t readily identify.

That’s when another whole layer of memory began to unfold. They started remembering the things, the room, their grandparents.

Photo context -- heirloom jarLet’s start with the jar on the dresser. When I asked my mother, she said she thought they might have had candy in it. Danny liked chocolate-covered cherries, she said, and Oper liked a candy that was chocolate-covered white creme.

Aunt Carolyn, on the other hand, thinks the jar might have held Danny’s talcum powder. And she thinks she still has the very jar (pictured).

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Photo context: the portraits on the wall

In one corner of the photograph, I saw two items on the wall. I knew the triptych on the left immediately. I’d seen this very elegant set of images in the family album, but never knew where they had been kept in the house. All three images are my Danny when she was young.Photo context subject -- wall imagesPhoto Context subject Clara Dennis Mayberry Payne Triptych

The other portrait did not look familiar. Photo context subject_Clara Jane Thomas MayberryWhen I asked my mother and aunt if they could identify it, they immediately recognized it as their great-grandmother, Clara Jane Thomas Mayberry. The only image I recall of her was a grainy profile of her at a distance, sitting in a rocking chair.

This morning, my mother scanned and sent me the image I had never known to ask for. I now have a beautiful portrait of her for our family tree — thanks to something I saw in a photo’s context.

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Photo context: the clock

A time-stamped photo from around 1950. Imagine it. My great-grandparents posed for a camera at 12 minutes to 8:00 — I assumed 8:00 pm, as I examined it.

Photo context subject _ ClockPhoto context -- Seth Thomas Clock


But what a clock! It looked so familiar — fresh in my memory, oddly. I zoomed in on it, and could make out the letters “ASHI” in the label below the clock-face. I emailed it to my sister, who loves antiques and has a steel-trap memory for details. She immediately solved the question of why this looked freshly familiar. It sits on her mantle now.

This is an 1895 Seth Thomas “Calendar No. 5” clock made for the Fashion Calendar Clock Company. Danny inherited this treasure from her parents.

In this one element of the photo, I’m seeing not only something my great-grandparents treasured, I’m seeing something my great-greats valued. And it’s something my sister will pass to her descendants.

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Photo context: opening gifts

Photo context - Dannie's giftsOnly in this close analysis did I notice for the first time that Danny and Oper are holding gifts. So it was an occasion.

Oper’s gifts remain wrapped or covered, but Danny’s are visible. I knew I was looking at gloves with a white bow on the left. But the other gift puzzled me. It looked like some sort of ornate decoration, but my grandparents did not live an ornate life.

I sent this one to my mother and aunt, also, and Aunt Carolyn readily saw what I had not seen. It is a flour sifter, turned open-top to the camera. A very practical gift.

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The picture in context

Neither my mother nor my aunt remember the day this photo was taken. But as they studied the elements, one by one, they began to piece together what must have been the story behind the image.

For one thing, they noticed the untidy room and Oper dressed in his farm work clothes. Therefore, this was not a party, with guests from outside the family.

The clock said 7:48, but they both knew it could not be 7:48 pm. Oper went to bed early, asleep generally by 8:00 pm. He rose at 4:00 am every day to take care of the livestock. Danny has slicked back her hair, something she did first thing in the morning, before the day began to tousle it. This was morning, and Oper was already finished with his chores.

Unwrapping gifts before 8:00 am. This had to be Christmas.

My mother and her sisters got up every Christmas morning, in their house just up the hill from Danny and Oper’s “big house.” After they opened the gifts Santa had left, they ran down to the big house to give and receive gifts with their grandparents. This had to be one of those Christmas mornings.

As they shared these memories, details emerged that were only peripherally related to the photo. They both remembered that Oper’s “dress up” attire was khaki pants and a khaki shirt. Every Saturday, he dressed up and went to town, where he spent hours chatting with other farmers out on the sidewalks of Montevallo. They recalled that Oper’s father used to entertain people by standing on his head. They remembered things.

Thanks to the photo context of this one image, I have learned more about my great-grandparents in the past week than I ever knew. The photo extracted buried memories and became so much more  than just a picture.

Postscript: My friend Frances Robb, Alabama's most notable historic photo expert, did some sleuthing for me and believes the Prince Albert can was a special holiday tin created in the 1930s. We are looking at the back side of it, but the front likely has Santa Clause on it. Thanks, Frances!


GEG_Single Wrap

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