Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From the Way Back Machine by Ellen Hartman

The New York Times has a new Tumblr site called The Lively Morgue.

The Lively Morgue is a glimpse at the millions of photos stored in the picture archives of the Times. Each post includes a picture and a scan of the back which includes various hard to read stamps and scribbles and stuff I'd like to understand.

(Here's the About page for the Tumblr site. It's fascinating.) They're just getting started, but I can tell I'm going to love the site. Old photos really get my imagination pumping. I love to think about the details like the dads in suits in the photo from Bat Day at Yankee Stadium and the size of the mannequins in the photo from the rummage sale. (I just bet those mannequins are shaped differently than the ones in stores now.)

When I see pictures like those, I can't help myself. I automatically start trying to piece the specifics together into some kind of story. So much of life is in the details of our old photos and the little vignettes we hand down from generation to generation.

Here's a story that combines my family history and my husband's.

My husband's family is pictured in an old photo from their hometown newspaper. The entire clan is gathered on the front porch of their home, around 1912. Everyone is lined up across the porch from an older man in a rocking chair right down to a baby held in her big brother's arms. Also the cow.

Yes. The cow.

I was joking with my husband one time about him being from a family who would include their cow in their family portrait for the newspaper. My grandmother said, "At least they had a cow."

Her understanding of that time and place changed my perception of the photo, and also increased my respect for my grandmother who came a long way in life considering she started from a family who didn't even have a cow.

(Additional fact: When my son was little, he was obsessed with that photo which he said pictured "his cousin the bull." Hee.)

What about you? Do you have a story from the "olden days" of your family or town? Do you live in a house with a history? Are you going to add The Lively Morgue to your Tumblr favorites?

P.S. I couldn't lay my hands on the photo of our cousin the bull, but I did pull this one out of my family archives. It's my other grandmother (I'm sure her family didn't own a cow either) with her new husband and her sister. If not for this photo, I wouldn't believe my grandmother had ever worn a dress. The historical record is a good thing!


Mary Preston said...

I love looking through old family photographs. I think they are so precious to have.

Anonymous said...

I was in Ukraine for some time last year, and we visited the villages my family come from. Things still move at a 1920s pace there, and yes, having a cow is definitely something to be proud of!

My grandmother’s region was taken over by the Polish, then the Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians once more. She went through times where she didn’t own shoes, and if she wanted to go to school or church she had to walk for an hour in bare feet.

She is ninety this year, and sometimes when she is frustratingly frugal (there was one episode where I tried to throw away a broken umbrella - it kept reappearing in various family members’ houses!) we have to remember her past.

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Marybelle--I absolutely agree with you. I wonder about that with modern technology.

Last night when I was looking for the cow picture, I came across a really old photo of a woman standing outside her home. I'm not sure who she was or why I have it. I think she's from my husband's family, but he wasn't here to ask.

How will our digital "archives" get passed down and passed around the way physical photos do? We'll see.

Ellen Hartman said...


How fascinating to see the places your family is from, especially when you know the history of the region.

After my grandmother made the joke about the cow, I took a closer look at some of the photos I'd seen of her childhood and, like your family, not everyone had shoes.

I love the umbrella story. :-)

Liz Talley said...

Almost all my family lives in the same small town in which I was raised so I've got history in Minden, Louisiana. I recently found a History of Minden at a local bookstore. While thumbing through, I found a picture of my grandfather on one page (with the local football team)and the other grandfather on the next (with the local baseball team). It was cool -both side of my family are part of that town's history and I like the idea we're knit within that past.

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Liz,

How cool that both sides of your family are from the same town. Our photo of the cow originally surfaced when my husband's hometown put out a Centennial History book.

I grew up in the same town that my mom and grandparents grew up in. That long history was very supportive, but I did wish I could maybe, just one time, meet somebody completely new and unknown!

Kaelee said...

Ellen ~ Both sets of my grandparents owned cows. My mother would tell me stories of going to fetch the cows home at night and then her father would milk them. My father's family ran a bit of a boarding house and had cows and chickens as well. My husband's grandparents were farmers and had cows, chickens and pigs.

I love old photos. One of the most precious ones we own a copy of is of my husband's father's family. It is their passport photo and shows all but two members. The oldest daughter was too old to be included in the family passport photo and the youngest daughter was not born yet but she is a bump in the photo. 12 people in the photo. since the family was Mennonite they did not have photos taken at all usually.

Kristina Mathews said...

My oldest son had to do a family time line for his 8th grade history project. His father's side of the family has an interesting history. My Mother-in-law has a great photo of her as a child living on Alcatraz. Her father was a guard, and my son has a strong resemblence to him (at least in black and white photos, he didn't inherit his great-grandfather's red hair).

We also have a great photo of my other Grandfather-in-law sitting on Glaicier Point in Yosemite with Half Dome in the background. He was quite the adventurer. There are other photos, including one taken at Yosemite with the old car in the background, the men in suits and ties, the ladies wearing gloves and hats and a great big bear only feet away.

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Kaelee--

It's interesting to me that families can change circumstances in a few short generations. If someone wanted me to raise a cow, I'd be in big trouble. On the other hand, several of my friends have started raising chickens in the past few years. Maybe the times are swinging back the other way.

My husband just last week encountered an issue with his work selling memberships to a business. A farmer bought the membership, but did not want to have his photo taken. I'm not sure if he was Amish or Mennonite but your story makes me think possibly Mennonite.

The passport photo you mentioned must be really something--a real heirloom.

Ellen Hartman said...


Your son's Alcatraz connection probably was a huge hit with the 8th grade boys. How very cool.

Now about this or ???

I love this story--what would it feel like to have an adventurer that close in the family tree? That would be a neat character detail in a story.

Maybe my great-grandchildren will bring in dusty old Superromances as artifacts from the days when Granny wrote books that were printed on paper!

Quilt Lady said...

I grew up in a small community and a lot of the people in the community was related in some way. There is some history there that I have studyed. I still go a visit because my sister still lives there but most of the family is gone now.

Snookie said...

Hau'oli makahiki lele (happy leap year)! I love old photos and I too wonder what will happen with all these digital photos. I love looking through the old ones and figuring out who is who :)

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Quilt Lady and Snookie,

I guess history is always going to be intriguing to us. The NY Times site is interesting because those archives were locked away from view and now with digital technology, we're sharing them.

Backwards and forwards. :-)

Joan Kilby said...

Ellen, love the story about the cow. You must get your sense of humor from your grandmother. Old photos are wonderful. I have one of my parents from their first Christmas together after getting married. This would have been in the late 1940s. They look so young! They were sitting on the bare wooden floor because my dad was a university student and they were too poor to own furniture. There was only a Christmas tree in the background. But the huge smiles on their faces told the world and future generations how happy they were.

Jeannie Watt said...

Hi Ellen,
I love old photos and my family history is well documented. My husband, bless him, mounted several of the family photos from the 30s and 40s and they now hang in our living room.

As to the cow, my mother told me that often when a family had a portrait taken, they would include prize possessions. It wasn't uncommon for the men of the family to have to lug the piano outside for the photo.

I'll have to check out Tumblr. Looks interesting.

P. S. I love "my cousin the bull".

Ellen Hartman said...


The description of your parents' photo is wonderful. What a perfect keepsake. I'm imagining it as part of a movie montage to show a happy couple!

Being able to make a joke (and take a joke) is a standard element on both sides of my family. I'm always surprised by dinner with my in-laws because they have actual conversations. ;-)

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Jeannie,

Fascinating tidbit about the precious possessions being included in photos. We had pictures done of our kids at home when they were younger and I especially love the ones where they're holding something they loved at the time.

I was looking for the cow photo last night and I asked my son if he'd seen the photo of his cousin, the bull. He knew exactly which one I meant.

I had a joke in my blog about the insanity of seeing the New York Times on Tumblr because I mostly think of Tumblr blogs as places where tweens obsess over celebrities. It's a very image-heavy style of blogging. Some of the sites are pretty cool.

Kaelee said...

Ellen ~ I just looked at all the pictures. I got married in 1968 and I remember making a joke about a paper wedding dress. Instead it was a very mini skirted one. The paper dresses didn't hang around long. I loved the bottle in the tailor's dummy as well.

Ellen Hartman said...

Hi Kaelee,

I'm still thinking about the paper dress. What if I spilled something? I mean, I guess it would be a relief not having to worry about getting a stain out, but I don't know about issues of disintegration! (I guess this makes me one of those matrons who shouldn't think about wearing one anyway.)

Your wedding dress was a mini? How cool. I have an aunt who wore a mini for her wedding. My dress had a lace jacket that went over it and my grandmother said if it had been hers, she'd have dyed it to wear for other events. I should have done that, maybe.

Rogenna Brewer said...

Just heard about a new digital camera that lets you take those pesky people who walk into your shot out of the background.

Then there's the camera that puts you in the picture. Oh, and 3D...

I wonder what our historical archives will look like years from now.

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