Choose Your Own Backdrop

nielsolsenfamily1893

Family of Niels and Juliane (Hennike) Olsen, 1893, Yankton County, South Dakota; privately held by Melanie Frick, 2013.

When they posed with their children for this photograph in 1893, Niels and Juliane Sophie (Hennike) Olsen of Yankton County, South Dakota had been married for just over forty years. They had raised nine children to adulthood, eight of whom were born in their native Denmark.1

Niels and Juliane had purchased a farm upon their arrival in America, but in their later years, they moved to a more comfortable life in town. The couple would go on to celebrate fifty years of marriage in 1902,2 although their youngest son, Andrew, would be missing from that gathering. He drowned in 1897 while hunting ducks on the nearby Swan Lake.3

The photograph is a large print, roughly 8×10 inches, pasted onto cardboard with the date marked on the back. Do you notice anything strange about the backdrop? The family poses in front of a backdrop of painted trees that is slightly too small for a group of that size. To one side, the edge of the backdrop of a wallpapered room is visible, and the backdrop cuts off altogether on the other. All seem to be dressed in their best, the men in dark suits and the women in good black dresses. In 1896, Godey’s wrote, “All of us who are wise, possess a black gown.”4

The women’s dresses are distinct, although the two sisters seated on opposite ends, Stena and Cecilie, could easily have made their dresses from the same pattern. Their sisters’ dresses also bear similarities, though all have their own touches – pleats, contrasting material, or, in Dora’s case, large decorative buttons. Their mother’s dress, however, has no unnecessary frills. Notably, all of the women’s sleeves are of the fitted fashion of the previous decade; as the 1890s went on, puffed sleeves gained popularity. Perhaps this fashion had not yet become popular in Yankton County, or maybe these women simply didn’t care for the new style enough to want to rework dresses that were still perfectly serviceable.

Standing, left to right, are Helena (Neilsen) Larsen, John Neilsen, Andrew Neilsen, Fred Neilsen, Ole Neilsen, and Chris Neilsen. Seated, left to right, are Stena (Neilsen) Callesen, Dora (Neilsen) Nissen, Juliane Sophie (Hennike) Olsen, Niels Olsen, and Cecilie (Neilsen) Boysen. Variations of the surname, including Nelson, were also used by some members of the family.



SOURCES
1 Harold W. Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” in Ben Van Osdel and Don Binder, editors, History of Yankton County, South Dakota (Yankton, South Dakota: Curtis Media Corporation and the Yankton County Historical Society, 1987), 53.
2 Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” 53.
3 Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” 53.
2 Jorgensen, “Olsen, Niels,” 53.
4 Joan Severa, Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press), 460.

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2 thoughts on “Choose Your Own Backdrop

  1. Pingback: A Golden Anniversary | Homestead Genealogical Research

  2. Jessica Folger

    Hello!

    Can you email me please? I’m wondering if I can get permission to use this photo in a low budget film…? I will email you details and info about the film if you could please respond! Thank you!

    Reply

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