Category Archives: Photograph Analysis

A Danish Family Portrait

The Schmidt family left Denmark for America in 1870, when Jens Madsen Schmidt was thirty-five years old and his wife, Anna (Bramsen) Schmidt, was thirty-seven.1 With them were their two young daughters, Inger Marie, who was not yet three, and Christine, who was just twenty months old.2 Jens and Anna had married in 1866, not long after Jens was discharged from military service following the Second Schleswig War.3

Jens Madsen Schmidt, Anna [Bramsen] Schmidt, and daughters Inger Marie and Christine, ca. 1869-70; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018. Image courtesy of Alvie Jorgensen as printed in A Few of my Grandchildren’s Ancestors (Massachusetts: Alvie Jorgensen, 1989).

This is the oldest known photograph of the Schmidt family, believed to have been taken shortly before they departed Denmark or soon after their arrival in America. Dated circa 1869-70, it is quite possibly a carte de visite, a small card-mounted photograph popular before the larger cabinet card format became more common in the 1880s.4 The family may have wanted to share copies with their family members at home; while Anna’s parents would later follow them to Dakota Territory, Jens’s parents would not.

In the photograph, Jens and Anna sit side by side in a carpeted studio, their daughters perched on their laps. Jens is heavily bearded, although his upper lip is clean-shaven. His hair is brushed back from his forehead and he wears loose trousers in a lighter color than his jacket, a similarly dark shirt buttoned underneath. Anna’s hair has a center part and is pulled back, although it seems that it may be looped over her ears. Her headwear looks vaguely medieval in appearance, something like a circular roll with a scarf at the back, although its true style is unclear as well. Additionally, few details can be distinguished of her dress, which is obscured by the child on her lap. The silhouette of the full sleeves gives the suggestion of Bishop sleeves, which would have been gathered at the cuff.5 There appears to be some detail at the neckline of the dress—perhaps a white collar with a bow tied above—and the skirt is long and full. Her attire, with the exception of her headwear, appears relatively modern and less like one tends to think of as traditional Danish folk attire.

Fair-haired Inger Marie and Christine appear to wear tot-sized versions of their mother’s overall style of dress. The scalloped hem of a petticoat peeks out from under Inger Marie’s skirt; Christine’s petticoat has a straight hem. Both wear stockings and shoes. It is possible that their dresses are made of matching fabric; less than thirteen months apart in age, the girls could almost appear to be twins.

This photograph appears in a spiral-bound volume entitled A Few of My Grandchildren’s Ancestors, researched and compiled by late Schmidt descendant Alvie Jorgensen nearly thirty years ago, as well as in the Yankton County Historical Society’s 1987 publication History of Yankton County, South Dakota.6 It would be exciting to view a high resolution scan of the image to observe more details and, perhaps, even learn the exact location that it was taken. The next known photograph of the Schmidt family was taken nearly twenty years later at their homestead in what is today Bon Homme County, South Dakota. Although they were by that time young women, Inger Marie and Christine wore matching dresses.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Finding Homes for Two Orphan Photographs

On a recent visit to western South Dakota, I flipped through a stack of nineteenth century photographs at an antique shop in scenic Hill City. I had my eye out for any with names inscribed on the backs so that I might have a chance to reunite them with their families of origin, but unfortunately, only two in a stack of a dozen or more were fortunate enough to have been labeled.

“May Durkee” read a photograph of a young woman pictured by heaping bouquets of flowers, while the other inscription on a photograph of a young girl caused me to do a double-take: “Emily J. Frick.” Frick is my married name and not terribly common—and although my husband is the immigrant in his family and we know of no Frick relations in the United States, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to research Emily. Young May made it out of the shop with me as well.

Emily J. Frick, Brookings, Dakota Territory, ca. 1889-90; privately held by K.F., 2018.

The photograph of Emily J. Frick held several clues to assist with determining its date. While cabinet cards such as this were popular throughout the late nineteenth century, the location of the studio was stamped “Brookings, Dak.” As South Dakota achieved statehood on 02 November 1889, the reference to Dakota Territory suggests that the photograph was likely taken no later than 1890, should the photographer have held onto any outdated stock.1 The name of the photographer, O.G. Oyloe, is also revealing, as They Captured the Moment: Dakota’s Photographers 1853-1920 indicates that Oyloe began practicing his trade in Brookings in 1889.2

Emily appears to be in her early teens in this photograph, with fashionably frizzled bangs and her hair pulled back into a braid. Her dress features a high, pleated neckline and sleeves that puff above the shoulders, a popular look in 1890 fashion plates.3

Ultimately, it did not take long to identify Emily J. Frick thanks to online records. Young Emily was, as it turned out, Emily Josephine Frick (1876-1918), the daughter of Thomas and Barbara (Fisher) Frick.4 Born in Pennsylvania, Emily spent spent a number of years in Brookings, Dakota Territory when she was a child.5 Emily studied to become a teacher—records show that she taught a kindergarten class at Chicago’s Calhoun School as of 1899—and in 1909 she married Clarence Estes.6 Emily died of Spanish influenza at the age of forty-two, a victim of the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.7 She left no children.8

Emily did, however, have a number of nieces and nephews, and I was able to connect with one of these descendants via a Public Member Tree on Ancestry.com.9 Then, her photograph made its way into an envelope and was sent to its new home in Minnesota.

Mary “May” Durkee, Alexandria, South Dakota, ca. 1892-93; privately held by S.B., 2018.

May Durkee’s photograph held a number of clues as to its origins as well. Stamped with the location Alexandria, South Dakota, this photograph was most definitely taken after 1889, once Dakota Territory was no more. According to the Collector’s Guide to 19th Century Traveling  Photographers, the photographer, M.B. Barton, was believed to have operated in Alexandria circa 1887-94.10 A record search soon turned up Mary “May” Durkee (1877-1972) of Alexandria, the daughter of Franklin and Mary (Wakeman) Durkee, as the most likely candidate for this photograph.11

Although at first glance it seemed to me as though May was posing by a memorial of some kind, the words on the apparent certificate propped among the flowers at her feet read “To Whom It May Concern,” with the header labeled “City of Alexandria,” which does not give the feeling of a tribute. Could this have been an educational certificate?

According to a biography held in the South Dakota State Archive’s Pioneer Daughters files, May, who was born in Wisconsin and came to Dakota Territory at the age of two, completed the one-year high school course offered at Alexandria’s brick schoolhouse in 1892 when she was fifteen years old.12 She had to wait until her sixteenth birthday before she was eligible to begin teaching in the local country schools.13 This photograph might have been taken in honor of one of these occasions. May, a young woman with a fair complexion, wears what was likely a white dress with puffed sleeves that rise above the shoulder and are gathered above the elbow. A corsage is at the center of her chest and what appears to be a small book dangles along the side of her skirt, held in place by a sash affixed at her waist.

May taught school for five years until her marriage to John H. Dobson in 1898.14 The couple remained in Alexandria and had four children: Burdette James, Merrial Bertha, who died as an infant, Henry Bird, and Florence Louise Dobson.15 They enjoyed seventy years of marriage; John died in 1968, and May in 1972.16 A number of years before her death, she was celebrated as Alexandria’s longest continuous resident and was even crowned “queen” during a local anniversary event.17

After tracing May’s descendants through obituaries, I contacted a surviving granddaughter who remembered her well and was glad to have May’s photograph mailed to her home in Oregon.18 Thus, happy endings were found for both orphan photographs of these young Dakota pioneers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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A Woman on Horseback

Just two years apart in age, Ellen Eskeline Walsted and Jens Jacob Walsted were the youngest of eight children born in Denmark to Christian Jens Jacobsen Walsted and his wife Johanne Marie Larsdatter.1 Ellen and James, as he was known for most of his life, were the last of their surviving siblings to immigrate to America, with Ellen arriving in New York aboard the aptly-named New York in 1900 and James arriving in Boston aboard the Saxonia in 1902.2

James Walsted, Juanita Hansen, unknown, Clifton Walsted, and Ellen (Walsted) Hansen, Iowa or Oklahoma, ca. 1907; digital image privately held by Paul Hansen, 2018. Provenance of the original unknown.

The siblings soon reconnected in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, and were by all accounts close; James witnessed his sister’s wedding to fellow Dane Hans John Hansen in 1904, and later joined the Hansens on their move to New Hampton, Chickasaw County, Iowa.3 Eventually, Ellen and Hans moved on to Oklahoma, while James returned to Sioux City and married there to Kathrine Christensen, also a native of Denmark.4 

Although numerous photographs survive of Ellen, who was once noted to be “a lady of fine appearance” in a local newspaper, until this photograph was uncovered, only two snapshots, both taken in his later years, were known to exist of James.5

In this photograph, dated circa 1907-08, James and Ellen may both have been in their late twenties; Ellen would celebrate her thirtieth birthday in 1908, while James would turn thirty in 1910.6 Pictured, from left, are a young man in a bowler hat with a pipe between his teeth, believed to be James Walsted; a girl in a knee-length dress, believed to be Juanita Hansen, stepdaughter of Ellen; an unidentified boy perched atop a cellar door, perhaps a nephew of Ellen and James; a small boy standing before a horse, identified as Clifton Hansen, son of Ellen; and on horseback, an elegant young woman identified as Ellen (Walsted) Hansen.7

Ellen sits with poise on horseback, a hat with a broad upturned brim atop her head. While not a small hat, it is of a more modest size than those of the Merry Widow style which exploded in popularity after one was worn by actress Lily Elsie in 1907’s The Merry Widow.8 Ellen’s bodice appears to be pigeon-breasted, her skirt reaching her natural waist, and long riding gloves cover her hands and forearms.9 Horseback riding may have been a skill that she acquired in America, rather than during her upbringing in Denmark, where her father alternately worked as a baker and shoemaker.10

The provenance of the original photograph is currently unknown, and until it is recovered and the reverse checked for any possible inscriptions, questions about it remain. Where were James and Ellen when this photograph was taken? The group poses casually outside of a house with wood siding and a stone foundation; a cellar door and the corner of a porch are also visible. Two narrow windows, one open, offer a glimpse of fluttery ruffled curtains. It is possible James might have visited Ellen in Oklahoma, where she spent several years; alternately, it might have been taken at the Iowa homes of their sisters Jensine (Walsted) Winther or Anna (Walsted) Johnsen, both of whom had young sons who could be candidates for the little fellow seated on the cellar door.11 Regardless of the location, however, this informal outdoor photograph gives more insight into the personalities of these immigrant siblings than most studio portrait ever could.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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Spring at Grandview Park

Not long before they married on 08 June 1929, Gerald Adam and Fern Thoma posed for a series of snapshots at Grandview Park in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.1

Gerald, known as Jerry, was twenty years old to Fern’s twenty-one at the time these photographs were likely taken; the prints are stamped with the date 19 March 1929. On what was perhaps the first day warm enough to shed their jackets that year, they clowned around with friends Dorothy Thompson, Irene Tasker, and Clifford Thompson, and snapped a number of photographs documenting their time together. Curly-haired Dorothy and Clifford were siblings; Clifford and Irene would later marry.2

Fern wears heels and stockings, and her on-trend long sleeved, drop-waist dress hits just below the knee. Its geometric pattern is indistinct in the photographs, but it features a sailor-esque tie at the v-neck and two rows of ruffles at the hem.3 Her long wool jacket, worn in all but one of the photographs, has a warm fur collar; her two female friends also wear fur-trimmed jackets. Fern’s bob is neatly concealed by her stylishly adorned cloche hat.4 Jerry is smartly dressed as well, wearing a wool suit with a bow tie and a straw hat, his outfit nearly identical to that of his friend’s. His pants, cuffed at the hems, are so wide and loose that they appear to almost skim the grass; they look much like the ready-made “Oxford Bags” that became popular in the mid-1920s. 

Whether the couple was celebrating something in particular—an engagement?—or simply enjoying the spring weather on an afternoon walk with friends, it is interesting to note that several photographs were taken at a memorial for one Mabel Allison More, a Sioux City resident who had died in 1924.5 Given the lighthearted nature of the photographs, it can be assumed that the young people did not know More, but were rather attracted to the charming tiled wall merely as a backdrop and convenient place to climb. Grandview Park was presented to the city of Sioux City in 1908, and soon became a popular gathering place known especially for its trellised rose garden, the beginnings of which may be visible in the photograph of Fern, Dorothy, and Irene, and later for its bandshell.6

A little less than three months after these photographs were printed, Fern and Jerry would marry, with one of their friends pictured here, Dorothy, serving as an attendant.7 Although no photographs of their wedding day, nor their honeymoon in the Black Hills, are known to exist, these snapshots give a glimpse into the relationship of this happy young couple who leaned comfortably into one another and smiled joyfully for the camera.8

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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A South Dakota Marriage

Fred Nielson was twenty-six years old and Christina Marie Schmidt was twenty-one when they married on 08 March 1890 before the Justice of the Peace in Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota.1 Both Fred and Christina had emigrated from Denmark as children, and for more than fifteen years their families had been neighbors as they farmed less than a mile from each other in eastern Bon Homme and western Yankton counties in southeastern South Dakota.2 Whether the couple first became acquainted as children or young adults is not known, but their first known photograph together, their wedding portrait, survives today.

In the photograph, Christina stands in a heavy skirt and bodice, perhaps wool, with contrasting velvet panels on the high collar, cuffs, and bodice. Her hair is styled without the frizzled bangs that she wore a few years prior, and is instead swept smoothly off her forehead. A horizontal pin at her throat appears to match the pin worn in the earlier photograph. She rests one hand on the shoulder of her husband, who is seated. Fred wears a three-piece suit that is rather tightly fitted, as well as a white collared shirt and tie. A watch chain affixed to his vest is also visible. Fred’s hair has been combed and parted neatly, and he sports a small mustache.

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nielsen, South Dakota, 1890; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018.

Posed before a painted backdrop of a pastoral scene that doesn’t quite reach the floor, the husband and wife look directly at the camera. Both sturdy, fair-haired Scandinavians, their expressions are serious as was typical in portraits of this era. Although this image is a photocopy, it can be assumed that the original portrait was a cabinet card, a style of photograph mounted on card stock emblazoned with the photographer’s emblem that was popular at the end of the nineteenth century.

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nielson would go on to welcome nine children into their family and would live to celebrate twenty-eight years of marriage together.3

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Adam Brothers

When five of the six living sons of Timothée and Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam gathered in the Midwest circa 1913, it was deemed an occasion worthy of a photograph.1 From left are pictured brothers Louis (1848-1927), Peter (1852-1936), Joseph (1850-1926), Prosper (1867-1943), and Timothy Adam (1846-1919). Although the twenty-one year span in age of these brothers is impressive, in fact, twenty-seven years passed between the births of their eldest sibling and the youngest, who arrived when his mother was fifty years old. At least fourteen children were born in total, with all but the youngest born in Quebec. All got their start in life in the cotton mills of Indian Orchard, Hampden County, Massachusetts, which had lured the Adam family from rural Quebec to America.2

Brothers Louis, Peter, Joseph, Prosper, and Timothy Adam(s), ca. 1913; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2018. Image courtesy of Dorothy Bouchard.

Timothy, at right, likely resided in Jefferson, Union County, South Dakota at the time this picture was taken,3 not far from Peter, second from left, and Prosper, second from right, who had both settled in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa.4 Joseph, at center, had apparently traveled from his home in Ponca City, Kay County, Oklahoma to reunite with his brothers, as well as, undoubtedly, his twin sister, who lived in Jefferson.5 Louis, the one brother to have remained in Hampden County, Massachusetts, traveled the greatest distance for this reunion.6 The only living Adam brother not pictured here was Euclid John (1856-1940), who spent his adult life in Southbridge, Worcester County, Massachusetts.7 Whether he lost touch with his brothers or was simply unable to make the trip to visit them at the time that this photograph was taken is not known.

The Adam brothers, some of whom adopted the surname Adams in addition to Anglicized versions of their given names, held a variety of trades between them. Census records indicate that after leaving the cotton mills, some went on to become carpenters, barbers, homesteaders, clerks, pool hall operators, and hotel-keepers, among other occupations. All married, and all but Joseph had children of their own.

This photograph is a photocopy of what was said to be a real photo postcard, a format designed to be easily sent by mail to friends or relatives. Like the only known (or suspected) photograph of the mother of the Adam brothers, the original is believed to have been lost.8 Despite the poor quality of this photocopy, it is apparent that the brothers have dressed sharply, with their hair neatly combed and several in ties, although this was apparently not such a formal occasion that they opted to wear jackets. It is also plausible that it was quite hot, if their reunion took place in the summer months, and the gentlemen may well have opted to be as comfortable as possible. Several appear to wear sleeve garters, arm bands that helped to adjust the length of one’s sleeves.9 While the men’s appearances are distinct from one another, particularly given their disparate ages, similarly prominent noses—and, when visible, even hands—help to link them convincingly as brothers.

Copyright © 2018 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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The Nelson Family at Home

The leaves had already fallen from the trees surrounding the modest two-story farmhouse belonging to Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson when this photograph was taken in late 1904.1 Situated near the scenic bluffs along the Missouri River west of Yankton, Yankton County, South Dakota, the house was said to have had a creek running through the corner of the kitchen as a source of fresh water.2 Its simple, symmetric design featured a center door and four front windows on its clapboard walls, with a chimney appearing above the gable roof on one side. The house was likely painted white with a trim of a different color around the windows and door. Many trees surrounded the house, which was situated on an incline; the remote, wooded landscape seems to lend truth to family lore of the children fearing howling wolves (or coyotes?) as they walked to and from the nearest country school.3

Fred and Christina (Schmidt) Nelson and Family, Yankton County, South Dakota, 1904; digital image 2017, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2017.

Fred and Christina, both of whom immigrated from Denmark as children, married in 1890.4 Fred, at left, was forty years old in late 1904; he wears a loose-fitting sack suit and hat and sports a mustache.5 At center stands son Ole, ten, beside Christina, thirty-five.6 She holds baby Mary, who was born in February of that year.7 While Ole is clearly dressed for the outdoors in a coat and cap, Christina, like her daughters, wears no jacket or shawl. Her simple buttoned bodice and unadorned skirt appear comfortable for a nursing mother as well as household duties.

The open door behind Christina suggests that perhaps she and the girls had just stepped outside for the photograph. In a cluster at right stand Anna, thirteen; Helena, nearly or barely four; Louise, five; Julia, twelve; and Andrea, nearly eight.8 All of the girls wear their hair neatly parted and plaited down the back; it was said that the sisters would line up each morning, oldest to youngest, to braid each other’s hair.9 They wear dresses that, with the exception of the youngest’s, fall below the knees, and all wear dark stockings. Their dresses have high necks and full bishop sleeves; a few additional details can be distinguished, such as the plaid fabric of Andrea’s dress and the belt at Anna’s waist.10

The occasion for this photograph is not known, although perhaps it was taken by an itinerant photographer who made stops at rural homes throughout the Midwest. Unlike formal studio portraits of the era, this photograph is as much about the place as the people, allowing a glimpse into the lives of the Nelson family that would otherwise be missed.

Copyright © 2017 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.
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