Searching for Answers: The Unknown Photographs
Unknown Photograph 1
I have departed, at least temporarily, from my standard repertoire of Fintech and Fiction for a bit of mystery and history. I did this because of a photograph I wanted to share. Two photographs, actually. They came into my hands quite by accident.
One of the photographs struck me, in some oblique way. It is difficult to describe how or why. It's a rather plain scene of two people sitting, next to bicycles. But the way they are sitting, that's what got me.
I’ll wager that you’ve never seen them before and I hope that they evoke something in you as well. Something different. Some peculiar and curious solicitude.
These two photographs were stuffed in an old book and forgotten for a hundred years or more. It's their first time out in awhile. Ghosts from our past.
I have temporarily granted them a reprieve from their bound grave. Please treat them well. They only have a short time to live through your eyes.
Era Opinion Survey
How old is the above photograph?
Have you ever tried to pick out the details of another time and place? Peer into faded faces, ethereal in quality, and almost certainly long departed. Gravestones in photo.
How about trying to understand what the people in the photograph were doing. What they were thinking. If they were cold and tired or concerned about something nearby. Maybe something just off to the right. Just out of frame.
Maybe it is us, just out of frame.
This is my current quandary. An accidental find at a local outdoor market, in Central Florida, (United States) this past Saturday, March 11, 2017. A random glance at a bookcase. One of a thousand decrepit shelves. Dirty. Warped. Invisible.
I came upon a five volume set of “Gibbons Roman Empire, Milman”. The hardback book set was of red cloth, stained, musty smelling and impregnated with a few forgotten photos. Castaways from another era, waiting for a visit.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
The Time Machine
As you can see (right) the five volume set is worn and aged. (Ignore the background.)
I paid five dollars for the set. There was no date of publishing.
The only thing different, besides their volume numbers, was that the first volume had a black and white plate of “Edward Gibbon, Esq.”
Otherwise, no real differences.
These were the machines that sent the photos one hundred years ahead, nearly perfectly preserved.
Volume I had the photos. The first one, "Unknown Photograph 1," is pictured above. The second, "Unknown Photograph 2," is pictured below.
These are paper stock photos. Flimsy. And something about them made me look twice. An uncanny quality or maybe it was just me. Maybe I was projecting, in some offbeat way. Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Visualizing depth in a stark past.
At first I was just going to toss them. Probably recent copies, I figured. But I kept them. They just looked old. Seemed out of place. Needed to be seen.
After some research I formed some basic conclusions.
The books that contained the photos are not that rare.
The two bluish photographs also appear to be from the same time period as the books. Around 1900. Perhaps as early as 1850.
Unknown Photograph 2
The two paper stock photos -- the prints -- are slightly yellowed. They are four inches by four and three quarter inches in size.
You can’t tell, but the photo with the people has two pin holes on the right upper and lower corners and the one of the bridge has a pin hole on the left side middle. So these photos were pinned somewhere, before they found their way into one of the volumes I bought.
I wonder where they were before. On someone’s bulletin board? Why were they so important? Family? Husband? Father?
And the bridge? If you look closely, I think people are standing out there. Perhaps walking or working on it?
Can we say that, if the photographs are related, that these two people sitting next to the bicycles are connected to the bridge?
Beyond the bridge, what is that, over the water? A grain silo? A building? It appears artificial.
With my magnifying glass I tried to read the sign on the bicycle -- in the people photo, but it’s too faded. It does appear as if the sign is made from a piece of wood. The letters are tantalizing. Just out of visual reach. Maybe a “013E” in the middle of that sign? Perhaps an expert could enhance the photograph and make the sign readable again.
The bicycles looked to be about 100 years old, when I compare them to the photos online. They could be old Postal Inspector bikes, judging by the third bike on the left. On the wheel, near the axle there appears to be fog light. The link I provided has similar fog light devices.
There is a partial fingerprint (latent) on the upper right corner of the people photo as well. But it’s only a partial and I doubt there were many records 100 years ago. And where would I look? In what city or country?
Above. Is that a house or a station? Clapboard? No driveway. Rough planks on bare ground. Was it muddy there? Were those planks used for a wagon perhaps?
Judging from what the people are sitting on, maybe this was once a place to park your wagon. You can see that the bench has a suspension of a sort.
And look at the posts holding the roof up. Kind of rough. Rustic to be sure. Barely finished logs.
How about the fence to the right. Is that a fence? Seems kind of military. I checked. It looks really similar to a Civil War era battlefield fence. Could be fluke, however. Maybe an old fence, not yet taken down after the Civil War in America.
But then look at the person on the right. Is that a pants uniform? From what branch of service? When? Is it really a uniform? Try as I might, I have yet been able to find a match. Certainly the shoes are very dated.
The person on the left appears to be wearing a hat. Medium brim. And maybe a tie. Again, from what time period?
So what are we looking at? A farm with buildings in the background? A post? A husband and wife? I mean one of the people is kind of close to the other. Leaning, with a blanket. Is this mother and father?
And what are these two people doing? Resting from a long bike ride? Is that panel in the frame of the bicycle to the right, a tool pouch or some sort of identifying sign?
Are these two waiting for orders? Posing for a picture? Does the person on the right really want to be there?
I took a different tack. Bicycle soldiers. They had them during the Civil War. They’ve had them for years. A quick look there and I was stumped.
But I learned something. The bicycle was a major asset. Military and civilian. A status symbol of sorts. And you didn’t need to feed them.
Just to beef up my proposition that the two photographs are indeed old, I checked the type of photography, as well. Actually, I did that first
The photographs were hand sized. Cheap paper. Like I said, they were bluish tinted, but were probably, originally, black and white. And the oddity to me was, that they were on paper. Thin stock. Think mass market paperback book. The kind we read in 2017. The paper is about that thickness and texture.
A check of the history revealed a possibility. There was something called an albumen print in the 1850’s. They used plain paper. Could these be albumen prints? A type of silver print used for decades. Making photos from negatives. If so, that would mean that these photos are -- maybe -- over a hundred years old? Say between 1850 to 1920?
The history of albumen prints notes that they came in several colors. Pink, green and blue are examples. It is also interesting that most of these old prints have apparently faded away. Gone forever. So what did I have here? What do I have?
Aside from the people photo, what of the truss bridge? Could that link anything? Was it metal or wood, spanning a body of water, possibly a river? In the foreground vegetation can be seen, grasses and a leafy plant. It is difficult to see the type of plant. Maybe that could help place the bridge.
In the background, beyond the bridge, across the water, there appears to be trees, at least to the left of the frame. Distance is difficult to measure in the photograph, but the river, if it is a river, looks wide. It’s relatively calm water. The reflections are not difficult to make out.
If you check truss bridges, this one might be what is called a “Baltimore” type, but I’m only speculating. I have no idea where the bridge is located -- or was located. Truss bridges were in use for decades, still are, and the photo is blurry. It could be 1850’s or much later.
Back to the books.
Since I found the potentially old photographs in one of the volumes, together, I decided to narrow the date that way. At least know when the book was published. In the event there is no date in the volumes you can check several other sources.
I tried the publishing house.
In this case the publisher was: “Henry T. Coates & Co.” You can see that they were in business from 1895 to 1904. So now we have an approximate date for my five volume set, but the photos could be older. They could be newer as well.
The photos could be unrelated to the name in the book: “G. L. Barrett.” In fact, all five volumes have the signature in cursive. A signature of the original proud owner of the book set?
Let us suppose they go together. That the owner of the books took the photos from his wall and shoved them in his/her book. Years ago. Before I was born. Before my grandfather was born. Maybe to save them or hide them.
In any event, if these are albumen prints, then the books saved them. Sent them in a time machine to me.
What are the chances? Probably happens every day. I wonder how many people just toss them, not realizing that they may be holding a chunk of history in their hands.
Who is "G.L. Barrett"?
As you can see by the page above, other words have been erased or have faded over time. Maybe that was another clue to help with identifying the photos.
The signature is odd as well. It’s not ballpoint pen blue ink, but smudged a bit. Fountain Pen maybe?
Next to the signature is a penciled in note: “5 vols”. Below that, “2.50.” An obvious recent addition.
As for G. L Barrett. I suppose that Barrett lived after 1895 when the books were published. That he/she liked history and that was our common thread. How I chanced upon these photos.
Maybe Barrett picked up the volumes at the local bookstore in Philadelphia. It does seem that Barrett was the first owner, however, given the signature, and that these were not library books.
Unfortunately, there are too many “G.L. Barrett's.” A needle in a haystack, covered in time. I have been unable to determine who he/she was.
The Next Trip Begins
Alas, I have exhausted my theories, which is part of the reason I submitted this descriptive piece. In hopes that one day someone might bring these two strangers back to historical life. Breathe in them, some bit of recognition. To say, hello.
And to thank Barrett.
For now, the people of the photograph wait patiently, back where I found them In Volume I. At rest.
Perhaps they will travel once again. Be resurrected in the future.
Thanks for reading.
Jack G. Shorebird
© 2017 Jack Shorebird