Tuesday, May 15, 2018
Some Clues Don't Let Us Go
Despite the fact that the graduation photograph I found in a northern California antique shop does not include a name, the few clues available to us keep tempting me to give a try at identifying the subject.
It is possible to identify subjects of photographs without the benefit of a full name given, of course. I've done it before, myself. And I'm not the only one to try my hand at this—witness the popularity of speaker and author Maureen Taylor, the Photo Detective. Maureen provides tips—not to mention, full courses—on how to examine the details in a photograph for hints on your family's story. Her blog often includes examples of how she analyses the elements of a mystery photo.
While I'm no Maureen Taylor, I did notice a few details about the photograph I shared with you yesterday. For one thing, while I couldn't quite make out the studio's name embossed in fancy print on the picture's border, the address was quite readable: 1107 F St. NW in Washington, D.C.
I checked on Ancestry.com for city directories for Washington, D.C., to see if I could confirm what the full name of the studio was, as the script was so ornate that I couldn't determine all the letters. In a transcription of the 1890 city directory, I was able to enter the address in the search box, which brought up several names of individuals: Harry F. Palmer, Jane P. Palmer (widow of William H.), and Dawson A. Blanchard. Even using a wildcard symbol for the photographer's name, though, I couldn't bring up any promising results.
What if the photograph was taken later than the date of the city directory? I tried my hand at another directory—this time, not a transcription, but a digital copy of the actual volume, covering the year 1900—and looked under business listings for photographers. If I had to hunt and peck my way through the directory for every name ending in —alee, I was willing to do that.
As it turned out, that wasn't necessary. At the end of the listing for photographers, on the top of the last page, I found an entry for William H. Stalee, a photographer whose address was listed as "1107 F nw."
Great. Now we've identified the photographer. But that doesn't necessarily mean the subject of the picture lived in the area. While I'm not sure the clues about this woman will lead us to her identity, there were a few items to mull over in this quest. First, as Wendy mentioned in her comment yesterday, the woman's mortar board featured two curious initials: M C. While those initials could possibly signify the college where the woman graduated, it was not likely one established in Washington, D.C., based on a cursory search through a list of current and recently-closed colleges.
Still, the college didn't necessarily need to be located in Washington, D.C., itself. While the first assumption might have been that this woman was a graduate of a school in the nation's capital, that idea would also indicate a relatively young person. Looking at a closeup of our subject's face—the thin lines beneath her eyes could signify some aging (or a very tired graduate)—leads me to believe she was older than the typical college student. Could she have been an instructor, wearing the graduation garb of her alma mater for another school's graduation ceremonies?
No matter what the possibilities for the story behind this photograph, one thing stands out to me: no matter where this woman graduated, if she were graduating from a college in the time period in which that photograph studio was in operation, she would be a rare woman, indeed. If we could determine the college and access a list of graduates for that time period, we'd have relatively few choices for possible names for our subject.