Life on the “B” Side

Life as an image cataloger has its joys and its challenges. At the Local History Division, our picture collection includes thousands of photographs, engravings, 35mm slides, lantern slides, stereographs, reproductions from books, a few photocopied materials, negatives (both glass and flexible), postcards, tintypes, and daguerrotypes — all from many different time periods. Although most have been classified and filed neatly in archival boxes, there is such a wide range of information (or a lack thereof) on the items themselves that cataloging an individual item accurately sometimes is impossible. If you are one of those people who has put off labeling your home photos, you may experience this dilemma even if you were the one behind the camera. “Who was that person again?” “Where was this, anyway?”  And with your newer digital files, how actively are you “tagging” them and migrating your information to new platforms?

Imagine looking at helpful and not-so-helpful notations from a century  ago. Each photo annotator has his or her own perspective on what is important about the picture in hand. I am particularly fascinated by the information written on the backs of the portraits we have. Why did people write what they did? But even if I am mystified, I am grateful there is at least something to go on. The portraits that are completely unidentified seem to diminish the reality of the flesh-and-blood people represented because their lives are untraceable, at least to us, in this time.

Sometimes there is only a photographer’s stamp with no information about the subject. Here is a particularly beautiful cabinet photograph back from the early 1880s from the C. H. Davis Photographic Rooms:


In order to help date the photo, I traced this photographer’s address in the city directories. Charles H. Davis operated out of 75 E. Main Street in 1883, but from 1884 to 1887 the studio was at the 138 E. Main Street address shown here. Wonderful! I can date the photo to within three years.

Some photo backs contain the photographer’s stamp plus some handwriting or an attached label that identifies the subject and the date. This portrait of Sue Badger (relative of Robert A. Badger, an official with Curtice Foods) has several numerical markings (old accession numbers?) on the back, and also  the information that Sue was an aunt of Lois Badger. The front is marked 1881. In addition, there are comments about the clothing: “Earrings, pin, buttons all jet. Chain of horsehair.”  Thank you, unknown fashionista annotator! I found myself staring at the jewelry much more than I usually would. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

rpf03837         rpf03837b

I particularly appreciate when all of the people in a group portrait are identified, such as this one of Livingston Park Seminary women, but wish that women’s full names had been used instead of honorifics. This was very common practice in the past, but looking for the first name of a “Miss Webster” is daunting. Sometimes we cannot find the answer.


Back row. Helen E. Gregory, Miss Webster, Mrs. Arthur Rogers, Mrs. Saul Tyler, Miss Laura Hawkes, Mrs. Atkins, Mrs. Fannie Emerson Bush. Middle row. Mrs. Eugene Arnold, Mrs. Gilman Perkins, Mrs. Frost. Sarah Fisher, Mary Little, Mrs. Foster Warner. Front row. Mrs. Walter Smith, Miss Agnes Chappell, Mrs. Joseph Roby, Virgina Smith, Alice Little, Miss Van Evrie, Mrs. Charles Ford.

Here is a portrait of a William Holloway and its reverse side. There are two distinct handwriting styles: A later annotation perhaps? The text reads almost like a letter of recommendation. In any case, Mr. Holloway was deemed “an honest man” by his boss at the Waverly House.

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Some annotators attempt to inject a bit of humor into their writing, as I found with this portrait of J. Moreau Smith. Such a story this label tells!

rpf03009J. Moreau Smith, Rochester Trust and Safe Deposit Co. Discovered on top of a heap of rubbish in rear of Reynolds Arcade April 2nd, 1913, by Edward C. Widman, City Hall — after the Great Rochester flood of March 27th 1913. “You can’t keep a good man down.”

To date, one of the most bizarre photo backs I have found was the B side of this photo of Joseph Allen Ely.

rpf03995 rpf03995a

Joseph Allen Ely. Born in Rochester Oct. 19, 1846 — Died in New York April 2, 1919. U of R class of 1867. See: Rr378.73 Rochester, N.Y. University; General catalogue…1850-1928, p. 37.

I am so glad for the inclusion of the citation, which allowed me to learn that Joseph studied in Leipzig and became a theologian and pastor, but what was it about this particular portrait, if anything,  that inspired the drawing about “hair fashions 1868”? It looks more like the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci than of Rev. Allen! We will never know why this doodler felt the need to draw this on the back of the photo — perhaps it was just the scribble of a bored student?

Sometimes there is no name at all. Here are two that I know date between 1866-1868 based on the photographer’s stamp, but I know nothing else about them. For now they are simply “unknown woman” and “unknown man.” Same photographer and same ottoman prop, and to me they look like they could be related. Were the pictures taken the same day? If they look familiar, please let us know! Until then, they will stay in the increasingly large pile of mystery photos we are assembling here at the Local History Division.

Elizabeth Spring

Digital Collections Librarian

unknown woman unknown man


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