Saturday, May 6, 2023

A Regular Nose


Sometimes, it just pays to look more closely at those hundred-year-old documents we peruse for family history purposes. If nothing else, that can be worth a smile, if not a chuckle.

When I closed out last month's research project on my mother-in-law's matriline, the chase led me to several unexpected people—son of a president, and a prince of pre-revolutionary Russia, for instance, each married to women sharing the same matriline as my mother-in-law.

With such international connections, of course there would be passports to be applied for. And, from our perspective as family historians, we know that passports can provide useful genealogical information.

I took a close look at one application, dated in 1870 for Laura Virginia Carr, by then wife of Chicago businessman Benjamin Lockwood Honoré. Her niece's husband, Chicago investor Potter Palmer, had signed to vouch for Laura on her application.

Since this was an application pre-dating the widespread use of photographs for such documentation, the paperwork included a verbal description of Laura's appearance. From that record, we learn that Laura had a high forehead, a sharp chin, a small mouth, and a regular nose.

A regular nose? What is that supposed to mean?

I thought that was an unusual way to describe any feature of a person's face, so I took a look at the applications for the rest of this traveling family. Laura's niece Bertha, wife of Potter Palmer, had a nose that was said to have been "straight." Though completing her application over a decade after Bertha's, her sister Ida—by then, wife of the president's son—had the same description: a "straight" nose. Likewise for Ida's daughter Julia, completing her application in preparation for her life as the wife of a Russian prince: "straight" nose.

Perhaps, back in 1870 when Laura Honoré completed her paperwork to travel abroad, the science of facial descriptions had not been so finely tuned. After all, it can take a thousand words to add up to one picture—and pictures were what those passport applications were lacking.

Isn't that just like the challenge we face when we look at any other dated document describing our ancestors' lives? We read papers filled with words carrying hundred-year-old baggage, terms that could have meant something entirely different to those who lived during that era than they would to us today. We are consigned to rely on reports of what eyes spotted back then, but which say nothing of the questions we would have asked of the same people today.

Somehow, with all those restrictions, our task is to recreate a picture of those ancestors, doing far more than merely counting those "regular" noses. Overcoming the nondescript terms we have to work with, our goal is to craft a family narrative based on those mundane facts that can not only speak to us, but can resonate with the future generations to whom we hope to pass along our message.

Above: Description of physical appearance of U. S. Passport applicant Laura Honoré, part of her passport application which was filed August 5, 1870, in New York City; image courtesy


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