An Obligation to the Past
I’ve inherited hundreds, possibly thousands, of family photographs and the stories that go with them. I feel a responsibility toward them. But I am the end of the line — no siblings, no children. For years, I wondered how I could attach stories — when I know them — to the photographs. Finally, I discovered the blog.
I’ve always been fascinated by old photos — anybody’s old photos — as long as there are people in them.
“The Past Is a Foreign Country: They Do Things Differently There.” — L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between
Each photograph is a mystery, a “speaking likeness” which cannot speak. But in fact, they are speaking, in the language of gestures, poses, expressions, relationships, clothing, hairstyles, beloved pets and cars, friendships, trips to the seaside, records of solemn events. . . . A person looked into the camera, as alive as I am this moment, and is there, on the other side of the image, as if we were only separated by a sheet of glass.
If “the past is a foreign country,” this is the visual language it speaks: old photographs, old advertisements, old clothes.
Why Would Anybody Care?
My family and their friends are just ordinary working class Americans: nobody famous, no historic achievements. But I happen to be interested in “ordinary” people and “ordinary” lives. I hope you are, too.
Even the relatively recent past is full of hidden customs and assumptions that are rarely recorded because they are “givens” — too obvious to need explanation at the time.
If you were born after 1960, you probably don’t remember a time when women were not allowed to wear trousers to work. I do.
You’ve probably never heated a curling iron on the stove; my mother did, and used it on my hair.
Around 1921, she was the first girl in town to get her hair bobbed; she had to learn the difference between a hairpin and a bobbie pin. (The expression “hairpin curve” is probably meaningless to most of us now.)
We knew what it meant to be “put through the wringer;” that’s what we did with our clothes every wash day. One of my aunts started a family feud by replacing her “icebox” with a newfangled “refrigerator.”
As part of a different project, I began reading hundreds of magazines from the 1920s and 30s. Between the advertisements and my family photos, I am flooded with memories of things that used to be ordinary. I hope to record a few of them here.
P.S.: In fairness, I should say that I sell vintage sewing patterns and other small items on EBay, and I sell books on Amazon. However, the purpose of this blog is not to advertise those items, although I may sometimes use a photograph here that I originally took for an EBay listing. At some point, I will need to start “de-accessioning” my family photos, too.