Tag Archives: Old Photos

Oscar Mathisen, Norwegian Champion Skater, 1915-1920. Library of Congress.

The secret, he said, was to hold a ten-pound weight behind your back to keep from falling forward.

Oscar Mathisen, Norwegian Skater, 1915-1920; Library of Congress.

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Me and Lizzy

Great Grandma Koboldt and Me

I knew two of my great-grandmothers, and was close to one of them, but I have a picture of myself as an infant in the arms of a third, and of this one I have no memory. She lived halfway across the country, we rarely saw her, and she died when I was still small. In the photograph she is smiling and holding me like a football, or like a platter of fruit which she has just found in a surprising place. She is wearing a striped muumuu and, clearly, a wig. We are in the hallway of her home in Jefferson, Iowa. There’s an American flag to one side and a shelf full of plastic flowers and knick-knacks. Behind us, at the edge of the picture and atop a piece of furniture, there is discernible the antler and ear of a painted deer statue that would later inhabit the atrium of my grandparents’ home in Concord, California. The picture must have been taken in late 1973 or early ’74.

What I know about this great-grandmother I can summarize in one paragraph. Elizabeth Ann Wilson was born in Greene County, Iowa on New Year’s Day 1889. People called her Lizzy. She was the daughter of George Wilson and Hannah Naylor. She married my great-grandfather Charlie and they had one child, a daughter, who would become my paternal grandmother. Lizzy was a schoolteacher. In a box somewhere I have a copy of a Philology textbook from which she taught, with her notes in the margins. According to my grandmother, my great-grandfather once discovered that Lizzy kept a bottle of whiskey hidden in a cupboard. From this single episode my grandmother – a lifelong teetotaler – concluded that her mother was a secret alcoholic. Lizzy began to slide into dementia when she got quite old. The Apollo moon landings she believed to have been staged in Hollywood. Airplanes to her were demons screaming through the sky.

Every Christmas my wife and I agree that we ought to print more of our family photographs rather than store them on the computer, but we never get around to it. The other day my wife confided that, in fact, she had mixed feelings about owning very many printed photographs, even of the children. The trouble, she said, is that in the end they all go tragically astray. At best they are kept in the family for a few generations and then are lost or thrown out. More likely they end up in bins at antiques shops or in the hands of strangers for whom the faces in the pictures suggest nothing more than an era or a puzzle of relationships and circumstances. Our names and biographies effaced, new ones are imagined for us by people whose names and stories we ourselves will never know. Cut off from us, our images live an afterlife of their own. But this thought does not produce in me the same dismay that my wife feels.

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Opera singers rehearsing at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, 1916

It was the end of a brilliant career when, straining for a low note, Gloria accidentally summoned the ghost of last night’s cabbage soup.

Opera singers rehearsing at Lewisohn Stadium, NYC, 1916. Library of Congress.

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Man sitting in art gallery alone, circa late 1800s.

Though blind, he spent all day in the gallery eating ginger candies and whistling snippets of birdsong.

Unknown museum, presumably in Sydney, Aus. (date unknown).

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An old French magazine ad featuring woman in a colorful hat

Neither the smartest nor prettiest among her friends, Claudia managed to outshine everyone with the aid of her new hat.

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July 4th children's show circa 1925

Everyone loves the Fourth of July, or else no ice cream.

Photo circa 1915, from The Library of Congress. Sunshine Jarmann (Jarmon) – the only kid who seems to be enjoying herself – later performed on Broadway in the Music Box Revue, 1922-23. Marcus M. Marks was Manhattan Borough President from 1913-17. He died in ’34.

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Dancer Irene Castle and her pet monkey Rastus1915

Some of the loveliest mothers have the most ghastly looking children.

Dancer Irene Castle with her pet monkey Rastus, circa 1915. Library of Congress.

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