Episode 107:Holiday Photos and Caption Clues

Every Fall I start mumbling about the “highway to the holidays,” that hectic time of year that consumes any leftover moments of the day with preparations. The rituals, cooking, and cleaning are part of the holiday season regardless of what event you celebrate and how many people are in attendance.  

This year is a different kind of year for all of us. A once in a century event. It doesn’t mean I’m not decorating or sharing cooking with family though.  I’ll be delivering confections to doorsteps instead of trying to find extra room at the table or setting up a second one.   

So what are the traditions in your family (and do you have photographs of them)?

A general search like “holiday history” turns up a few hits but if you want specific details look for material using a particular one using the name of the holiday, symbol, or food.  For instance, every Christmas my mother-in-law used to put out a little Santa Claus like figure called the Belsnickel. I discovered that he’s a Pennsylvania German character that traveled farm to farm on either December 6th or Christmas Eve. The Belsnickel could be a man or a woman, and it’s possible that Santa descends from this personality.  However, instead of a red suit and black shiny boots, the Belsnickel wore “rags, masks or cast-off clothing” and carried either a whip or sticks. A misbehaving child was as likely to be hit as receive a treat. His presence in my in-law’s house now makes a lot of sense. My father-in-law’s family lived in York County Pennsylvania in the early nineteenth century and had German roots.  This little guy is now part of my holiday decor and I love it 

Of course, if your family still remembers who began the holiday traditions and their geographic origins you won’t have to look online or visit the library, all you’ll need to do is sit around a family feast and share the memories. Record them for posterity using a camera to preserve this piece of your family history. 

What About Captions?

Let’s take a deep dive into Captions on photos.   If you’ve heard me lecture about photo identification then you know that I’ll caution you to make sure you verify the caption on the image.   Did you watch Genealogy QuickStart (link in show notes)?  We talked about the 4 points of captions:

  • Who Wrote It
  • Did They Know the Person in the Image
  • How did they write it?
  • Is it True?

Followed by If it’s not them then who? 

That’s where my signature 5 comes in: The who, what, where, when, and why of an image. It’s a series of questions that help you get to know your pictures better.  Who is it, what are they wearing, when was it taken, and if you’re lucky you might be able to figure out the why.

Hattie Lavinia Henry’s family not only labeled the front of her photo but wrote an extended family history including her parent’s names, who she married, and where her children and their spouses.   I bought this frame image at the Brimfield Antique Show two years ago. 

Let’s apply those Quick Start questions to this caption. 

Who wrote it?  That’s a mystery. Sometimes the person writing the caption included their name and a date for when they wrote it.  Not in this case. 

 Did they know the person in the image? It appears so, but whoever wrote it knew the month day, and year of Hattie’s first two children but not the year of birth for the rest.  

How did they write it?  You might be wondering about this question but some captions are typewritten, some are in ballpoint ink and some like this one are written with a nineteenth-century writing implement and ink.  

Is it True?  To figure this out we need our genealogical research skills.  I’m working on this mystery. Turns out there is another Hattie Lavinia Henry but this one is born in the early 1870s while the Hattie in my picture would be born in the 1850s.   Wonder if it’s a case of mistaken identity?

Right now I don’t have enough information to determine all the answers to these questions. 

Do you have an interesting caption or writing on the back of an image?  Could you share it with me?   I love these out of context messages.  

In an ironic twist, I own a photograph that’s labeled on the front in ink that’s gotten wet. With the message that the photo was sent to an unknown person for their safekeeping.  Well…that didn’t really work because I bought it in an antique shop. 

Who’s going to inherit your photographs?   That’s an open-ended question that most of us have.  

Do you have an interesting caption or writing on the back of an image?  Could you share it with me?   I love these out of context messages.  

Last Minute Gifts

Any last-minute gift-givers might be interested in my Restore and Organize bundle that features Vivid-Pix Restore,  6 months of MemoryWeb.me and my Essential Photo Organizing Course  It’s usually $149.  But for the holidays it’s $99.   That’s like getting one of them for free. 

Vivid-Pix Restore will take your photographs from blah and faded to gorgeous.  MemoryWeb is the photo organizer created by family historians for genealogists.  If you’ve ever wondered what to do with all your real photos  then my Essential Photo Organizing course is for you.  This limited time offer expires on December 25th. 

Related Episodes:

Episode 98: Collect Photo Stories with StoryGlory.me


About Maureen Taylor:

Maureen is a frequent keynote speaker on photo identification, photograph preservation, and family history at historical and genealogical societies, museums, conferences, libraries, and other organizations across the U.S., London and Canada.  She’s the author of several books and hundreds of articles and her television appearances include The View and The Today Show (where she researched and presented a complete family tree for host Meredith Vieira).  She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, Germany’s top newspaper Der Spiegel, American Spirit, and The New York Times. Maureen was recently a spokesperson and photograph expert for MyHeritage.com, an internationally known family history website and also writes guidebooks, scholarly articles and online columns for such media as Smithsonian.com. Learn more at Maureentaylor.com

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