Sunday, September 9, 2012

An Over-Abundance of Williams

Tucked in among Agnes Tully Stevens’ carefully kept papers is one item that, from its appearance, doesn’t seem to fit the characteristics of its owner. The piece is a photograph. While not unusual in itself, it carries the marks that make it so uncharacteristic of Agnes’ possessions.

The photograph was saved from the cabinet card era, though unfortunately, enough of the card customarily backing that type of thin photograph has been chipped away—whether over the years, or on account of the ravages of forces resident in most homes with many children. If that weren’t enough of a problem—the margin where the photographer’s studio identity would be displayed is obliterated—the young visage of the subject has been chafed by clumsy hands retrieving the face-down object from dusty floors, and further enhanced by outright scratches. Perhaps it was an editorial mind that sought to improve on the subject—or at least his plaid bow tie—by taking ink pen in hand and filling in the offending white shirtfront beneath.

Given that Agnes was the proud mother of five boys along with her one daughter, perhaps that is to be expected. Of course, as I’m no expert in determining correct time period of photographs from hints such as wide lapel or double-breasted suit coat, I may be placing blame on the wrong brood of children. Perhaps it was Agnes’ own siblings that are to blame.

Not knowing the correct time period also places me in another conundrum. Someone—someone evidently a bit more advanced in age than our self-proclaimed artist mentioned above—had kindly taken pen in hand and written at the top of the portrait, “Uncle Will.”

Perhaps I should be more grateful than I am. That hint alone is of absolutely no help, absent any indication of a time period. For, you see, as frustrating as this family has been for its penchant of naming all descendants female in honor of their ancestor Margaret, it lags not far behind in its liking for the masculine designation, William.

And so, I am left wondering which Uncle Will this likeness may represent. Could it be, from Agnes’ own childhood perspective, the uncle of her mother Catherine Malloy Tully—the William who, through no choice of his own, made it a round-the-world excursion before settling in Chicago from his native Ireland? Or could Agnes be referring to her father’s side of the family, with John Tully’s younger brother William?

To complicate matters, could thisdesignation of "Uncle Will" be according to the much-older Agnes, now a mother in her own right, explaining to her children about the uncle on their father’s side—Agnes’ husband Will’s namesake uncle, William H. Stevens?

At this point in pondering the possibilities, it makes me almost glad that I haven’t busted through these genealogical brick walls that keep me at bay in the 1850s, or perhaps I would have uncovered yet more Williams.

Someday, I’m sure I’ll be happy to know the answer to the question, “Which William?” But for now, suffice it to say I am ill-equipped to handle knowing anything more about Williams in this tangle of family lines all sporting the same names.


  1. I am no export on mens suits; but I think the double brested look was "later", eg 1915-1925 and on.

    He certanly appears rather young in the photo and so clear eyed!

    Norkio or Farside might have a good guess the photodate.

    1. Now that you mention "younger," Iggy, you remind me that I forgot one other possibility: Agnes' own older brother William would be referred to by her children as Uncle Will. The only problem with this thought, though, is that this William died young in 1915--too young to make a double-breasted fashion statement in the 1920s or later. And his picture, though hard to see, in Agnes' wedding party, seems to look much different than this likeness.

  2. I just had the thought that I've often felt bad that I didn't have the interest in genealogy when we named our children so that I could have named them after ancestors, but truth be known, I likely would have added to our already tangled mess.

    1. So true! While I know people who consider it special to be named after a favorite relative, I'm glad my husband and I didn't follow that tradition. Taking the long view, it can get rather confusing!

  3. 1900 I had a larger hard mat frame at one point and was no doubt cut down to fit some kind of frame. I think the turned up collar is the clue. I will have a look around I recall that shirt collar:)

  4. Found it. 1900 to 1910
    A noticeable trend for men between 1900 to 1910 was the high celluloid collar. The detachable collar came around the neck and ended in front with two, small, overturned corners. The opening made by these overturned corners landed just about at the adams apple.

    1. Thanks so much, Far Side! Iggy had mentioned that you would know how to date that.

      Hopefully, that will help me zero in on which William we might have here. Maybe.


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