Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sepia Saturday 395: Labeling

Sepia Saturday

There's much to enjoy in the Sepia photo this week—the bonhomie, the clothing, the hats. It shouts out to the viewer of a happy male bonding experience.

It's 1896 (according to the fading white ink inscription)and in Australia according to the provenance. These men have no idea how lucky they are to have been born when they were, in 1870 ( a guess) or so. If they are twenty-five years old in this photo, they would be too old for WWI, looming twenty-one years in the future. Their sons wouldn’t have such luck. My own dad was born at an unlucky, time - 1899 which made him elegible for service in both World Wars.

For this captured moment, one hundred twenty-one years ago, the men enjoyed a lovely afternoon in a fern-filled grotto, smoking their pipes, drinking beer and enjoying life.

I'm guessing someone wrote "Look" on the hat of the left-most gentleman in the photograph. The writing Looks like the same as that on the bottom of the photo declaring the year and place "...cove 1896.”

That name written on the hat reminded me of the white-inked photos in my collection.

Thankfully, my parents saved all their photos, even those with leaky-light failure. This one may be suffering from double exposure too...those faces at the bottom don't fit. I'm happy they saved it because of the creative date display. Short of dark space, Dad used the brick house next door as a blackboard. At first glance, it looks like a Facebook arithmetic quiz. 2 divided by 5 = x divided by 49 = answer

The below photo makes me laugh. It was the only time this group—Grandmother and my maiden aunts and bachelor uncle—visited our home which was less than a mile from theirs. Not "visity," they would describe themselves. How did they get to our house? My Uncle Lornie, on the left, owned a  Nash Rambler— a tiny car. Maybe he made two trips? But then it was Christmas, winter weather, and his Nash was probably up on blocks. Most everybody abandoned their cars and took the bus in the winter. It was reliable, even at -40, and walking to the bus stop was easier than shoveling out a driveway. But there was no easy bus route from their house to ours. I'm guessing they piled into a cab or two. I remember or was told about their short stay --probably half an hour.

“They didn’t even take their coats off,” said Mom, half annoyed and half-relieved. Although I never heard of a reason, there was resentment between my aunts and Mom. They talked on the phone if there was a family emergency but no chatting. All communication was through my father or through myself and my sister.

I know Dad would have poured them a drink; whiskey for Lornie and sherry for the ladies. Perhaps they had a slice of Mom’s delicious rum-soaked Christmas cake.

My grandmother, second from right, was Queen of her family and my aunts were her court. They didn't visit other people, period. They were the visited, not the visitors. That's the way it was. Not to imply that we didn’t see this group often. Alverstone Street aka “the nest of aunts” was right next to the Catholic church and my sister and I visited them every Sunday after mass.

I admire the way Dad split the dates between the figures of these grande dames dressed in their formidable fur coats. Half the year is on his mother's, Ma'am's, feet and half on his sister, Hilda's, feet. The date and month, the 4th of December, got lost in the snow between the two ladies.

I enjoy thinking about my father seated at the dining room table, the cigar box of photos in front of him, white-ink bottle open on a piece of newspaper spread over the lace tablecloth his mother crocheted for the parents as a wedding gift. A goose-necked lamp shone on the scene from over his left shoulder. Birds of Paradise wallpaper graced the walls, navy blue at that moment but the paper changed color periodically when Mom painted the spaces, the background, between the leaves, according to fashion or her mood. It was maroon when first hung, then light blue, black and navy. She painted the spaces with a very fine brush and it would take her an entire winter to complete the job.

Like our Jesus in the dining room
The Keene replacement
With the nibbed pen in his hand, Dad studied each photo and decided what and where to write. His silver-waved head would be bowed over the work while Jesus supervised from just above. We had one of those odd religious portraits of Christ hanging over the table—the kind where the blue eyes of the subject follow you everywhere. It was there for years, most of my childhood, until it was replaced by a Walter Keene portrait, one with the now famous big eyes. You can tell there were no artists with finicky taste in our household.

Dad would be wearing a holey (not holy) khaki green sweater, a deeply loved relic of his WWI uniform, and baggy trousers, not out of place now in the ghetto except Dad’s pants covered his butt. From time to time he’d check his watch, counting down the hours until he could cap the ink, put the cigar box away and head over to the legion hall to spend time with the boys, as in the Sepia prompt.

The dark photos provided the best canvas for his white ink display. Most of the inked photos were taken in 1947. Either there was a wave of white ink fashion or a very cold winter. From Weather Canada:
"Jan. 30 to Feb. 8, 1947. Massive 10-day blizzard hits the Prairies, burying towns and railways across all three provinces." 
After being shut in for a couple of days, the white ink and pen likely looked like an attractive distraction and a way to pass the time. 

The rare dark photo provided a perfect canvas for white ink writing. This must have been a tricky shot to get considering his camera at the time.

The next photo preceded the white ink period. My sister must have used a fountain pen for her labeling job. I don’t believe there were ballpoint pens in that era. You have to look closely to see "me" printed on her dark shirt. She was always a fine printer as her round, unsmudged letters testify. The photo was probably labeled years after the event when she was eight or nine. She was five in the photo.

In this shot, I like the arrangement of "Xmas" horizontally, and the year "1947" positioned vertically, on the pine tree behind. It adds motion to the tableau. Dad used the abbreviated and hated term “Xmas” in most of the photos to save room.

Time and technology marched on. By 1964, we were writing on photos with ballpoint pens. The white ink pot had dried up and been thrown out. This shot, a favorite photo of mine, captures the spirit of my sister and her little family very well. Jim was finishing his service in the Royal Canadian Navy, paying them back for his medical school tuition. I never noticed before that the photo was not taken in Esquimalt B.C. as labeled, but rather in our family home's backyard in Winnipeg. The family lived in Esquimalt but were visiting Winnipeg before leaving for California where they would settle. I’m guessing my mother’s cognitive skills were fading (something she hid well for years) when she labeled the photo.

That’s the best part about studying these images for Sepia Saturday. There are stories inside of stories inside of stories you can root out and remember. They're like the Russian Matryoshka dolls one nestled inside the other, just waiting in the photo box to be opened up and enjoyed once again


  1. What a wonderful and detailed post. I enjoyed all the descriptions, especailly of the ‘not visity’ relatives.

    1. When I look back over all the Sepia Saturday posts, I'm so grateful to everyone for keeping it going and providing inspiration to keep posting every look through the albums and prod the memory.

  2. Labeling photos is so important - no matter how it's done. So many of the photos from mine and my husband's parents and grandparents are (or were) unidentified. Slowly but surely through aunts and cousins I've been able to put names, places, and dates to many of them, thank goodness. But I especially like the way you described your Dad sitting down at the dining room table all set to label pictures. What a lovely memory! And your Mom painting the wallpaper is rather unique. What a project, but she obviously enjoyed doing it or she wouldn't have done it! :)

    1. I'm not sure all of our labels are accurate as my Mom may have waited a little too long before she got to the job and had forgotten a lot of people along the way.

  3. Super stories. Some of the best family memories are triggered by simple photos. My grandmother never threw away photos like these, usually included with Christmas cards, and though I never knew these people, my mother - her daughter, can still pull up a story for many of them.

  4. Thank you so much for all of these wonderful blogs posts. I cherish them all. Funny, the photo with the mis-labled location - I have seen that photo before and always knew it was in the back yard of Dominion Street. I must have never read the label. There were a couple photos taken that day in the backyard.

    1. For some reason I'm unknown! It's Kim.

    2. They're for you and the kids. The more I look at the photos, the more I remember. Probably this serves the same function as the Facebook memories, like today, when you shared the photo of your Dad with Chris and William. I'm so happy to see Gabe taking on the job of family historian preserving memories and getting everything digitalized.

  5. I never thought of that reason (beginning of memory loss) as why some of my photos have wrong dates and places on them. It's probably the reason it happened now that you mention it. Great stories and I love the "short visit!" Just long enough to get a photo to prove they were there!

  6. Such a layered blog post. Amazing how a small bit of labeling can unravel so much of a family's history. Excellent that you have a photo of the one short visit by "the visited" -- their expressions fit so well with your description of their outlook on life. I also have some double exposures and photo errors in my collection, and they are among the most interesting prints.