Monday, July 2, 2012

One Thousand Words ~ The Study of One Photograph

If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the adage goes, then posting a single photograph here would do far more than anything that I'll post today.  The problem with that theory is that it assumes you, the reader would look at the photograph thoroughly and in detail, which unless you read this, you probably would not.  We are inundated every day with still images from the morning paper, billboards on the drive to work, and on and on... We've become numb to these "pictures", so seldom take the time to really look at them.

My wife, Traci, and I collect vintage and antique photographs (among other things) and have discovered that the tiniest detail can provide clues into the lives of the people, the history of the location, and the circumstance of the situation.  Today I would like to share with you a single photograph that I purchased at auction this past Friday night.  No, I did not bid on a single photo.  It was actually part of a box lot that included eight photographs, a tin lithograph toy chicken, two brass doorknobs, a blue comb with a leather gun handle, and a black forest wooden carving.  Don't ask me why they grouped them together that way; it's a strange auction house.  

Anyway, this is the photograph.  It's approximately 3"x5" and looks pretty old.  You can probably even tell from looking at it on your computer screen that it's of a couple of men standing in front of a bar.  If your eyesight is better than mine, you might see the bartender in the center of the photo behind the bar and a couple of other details.  This is about the point where your mind is telling you to scroll on down for another picture.  Don't get too excited.  This is the only photo you'll see in this post for awhile.  

Maybe you have photos similar to this one in a family photo album or even in the box lot that you bought at your last auction.  If so, pull one of them out and follow along with me.  I like to use a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe to really see the details.  If you have a scanner, you might even try scanning the photograph and looking at it on your computer.  You'll be able to zoom in and adjust the brightness or contrast of the photo and may find it easier to work with.  Either way, for this photo, I've done the work for you.  

This is pretty close to actual size.
Now that you can see it a little better, you'll notice that there are quite a few interesting elements to the photograph.  The bar has some sort of round logo (behind and to the right of the bartender) and a banner next to a taxidermy piece.  We might be able to determine the name of the bar from one of those.  Check out the style of clothing the two men in front are wearing - long trench coats over suits with stylish hats.  Notice the mustaches on all three?  Epic, right?  So, before I give anything away, look at these three closeups.

Left section: I love the bowler hat and doesn't this guy look like he might be the "long arm of the law"?  The signs behind him are (uppermost) "Eckart Brothers Brewing Company", (below that) a calendar, but the year is too blurry to make out, and (left) a business license, but again too blurry to make out.

Middle section: Notice the round logo?  With a magnifying glass I can tell that it says "Eckart Bros. Sparkling Ale".  The banner says "Moose" and the taxidermy piece is an elk.  With my jeweler's loupe, I can tell you that the sign in the top left corner is a license, but that's about it.  

Right section: This dark skinned man wearing a newsboy hat and pin striped pants reveals quite a bit about the location of the photograph, but I'll let you think on that.  The two pieces of artwork behind him are (left) a moose leaping across a plain and (right) a mountain range.

So, without cheating and reading ahead, what can you determine from the photograph?  
Can you guess the time period?  Mid 1800's?  Early 1900's?
What about the location?  The wild west?  New York?
The circumstance?  Two "law-makers" or two "outlaws"?  Businessmen?  Circus clowns? ;)

Here's what I can tell you based on a little bit of knowledge and a lot of research.

The time period: My only real "knowledge" when it comes to old photographs is in dating them.  This photograph, based on size, paper type, and format, was taken with a Kodak No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera.  Trust me.  The camera was introduced in 1903, but fell out of fashion by around 1925. So, we can comfortably narrow the timeline down to those dates.   Later on in this article, I'll show you how we find the exact date for this photograph.  (wink wink)

The location: Well before the time of neon and microbreweries, the two signs in the photo would be for the bar, not for any third party vendor.  You probably guessed that it was the northeast from the long coats and the unsegregated nature of the establishment.  I did a quick internet search for Eckart Brothers Brewery and found that it was in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  Spinning off of that information, I downloaded a library book that archives the town of Bridgeport from the late 1800's to the early 1900's and searched for the business.  Here's the section from "A History of Bridgeport and Vicinity", written in 1917 by Robert Hubbard, MD, that pertains to this location.  

"Frederick C. Eckart is a factor in the business development of Bridgeport as senior partner of the Eckart Brothers Brewing Company. He was born in this city in 1879, of the marriage of George and Carolitm Eckart, who in 1865 emigrated from Meiningen, Germany to the United States.  They first settled in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, but in 1868 came to Bridgeport and her the father, in association with a half-brother, Frederick Ehrsam, established the Eagle Brewing Company, which is now known as the Eckart Brothers Brewing Company."... "In 1896, he (Frederick C.) he and his brother took over the concern, which they reorganized under the name of the Eckart Brothers Brewing Company."… "Fraternally he is connected with the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks and the Improved Order of Red Men…"

Aha! So, we now know what's up with that elk taxidermy over the bar!  This bar doubled as an Elks Lodge...

The circumstance: This is usually the biggest mystery when it comes to old photographs.  Most of the time, we'll never really know the exact circumstances and why someone felt the need to capture the moment.  We can speculate and guess, but unless we have a direct tie to the people in the photograph, we'll be doing just that - guessing.  

But... I obviously wouldn't lead you through this entire dissection of a photograph unless I could unveil it's mysteries, right?  Time to let you in on a secret that I neglected to reveal earlier.  The reason that I "know" the exact type of camera used to take it and promised to reveal the exact date is that I've seen the back of the photo.  It was, in all honesty, the back of the photograph (along with the unusual nature of the photo) that led me to research this as thoroughly as I have.

"I have passed. Your old friend Bill"  When I first read that, I thought "passed"?  What are you telling your friend Charles Dieckman?  What do you mean "passed"?  Did you "pass" by some place?  Is this a letter from beyond the grave?

The Reveal

The time period: The reason I knew the type of camera used to make this photograph was that the Kodak No. 3A Folding Pocket Camera was the only type of camera that produced gelatin silver prints (type of developmental process) onto real picture postcards (RPPC's).  The exact date?  February 8th, 1912.  I know this because the postmark dated March 4th, 1912 places it prior to the next scheduled selection of Elk members, which according to the Elk registry is July 6th and shortly after the preceding date of February 8th.  

The location: The confirmation of the postmark from Bridgeport reaffirms the location of the bar as headquarters for the Elks Lodge and allowed me to limit my research for the business name "Eckart Brothers Brewing Company" to the Bridgeport area.

The circumstance: And, finally, the unusual circumstance of the correspondence that originally started this research, but ultimately provided a clue to the answers is in the seven word message "I have passed. Your old friend Bill"... Within the information provided by the Elk registry is a list of selected members for each election from it's beginning in 1868 to modern day.  On February 8th, 1912 the following is recorded in the lodge registry from Bridgeport, Conneticut - "William Welch - Irish Native, aged 48 years" and "Arthur M. Wilson - Continental - aged 32 years".  You see, William "Bill" Welch, friend and correspondent to Charles Dieckman, had the unusual honor of "passing" or being one of two selected Elks lodge members on that date.  The other, Arthur Wilson, was the first (and only) "black" man to be elected into the Elks until the membership was open to all men in the 1970s.  I will, however, save Mr. Wilson's story for another day.

If you, yourself, don't have the fortune of owning any old photographs, but would like to start your own collection, and in turn, your own mystery solving, then maybe one of these will interest you.  All of them are available for purchase from one of the fine shops of the Vintage Elite on Etsy.

RPPC - his first pipe (from Luncheonettevintage)

Flooded Street in a small town (from BallyDingRevue)

framed Cabinet Card from late 1800s (from hilltopcottage)

To find more old photographs, click this link - OldPhotosEVEteam


TheInspiredTrader said...

Absolutely fascinating piece! I was spellbound!

Wendy said...

Great post!! Such fun information!

Traci Moody said...

This is my favorite blog post you've done. It intrigues me.

gazaboo said...

Can't wait for the next instalment on Mr. Wilson.
Thanks so much for taking the time to share this.
We found some old glass negatives in our attic and are having them developed.
Now I'm really looking forward to seeing them :)

wretchedshekels said...

I cannot believe the information you gleaned from this one photo :) I was riveted thru the whole thing! I am definitely going to share this!

Anathalia said...

What a great post, Scott! Couldn't wait to get to the end and learn all the information you were able to find out from this photo! Just love it!

tracy said...

Nice investigations work! Love the hunt and researching old items (as long as there are clues). Very suspenseful!

Whimzy Thyme said...

I love old photographs and old postcards and have collected them for years. Very interesting story. Now I can't wait to find more old photos and follow your research instructions. Thanks!

Natalie Pereira said...

Wow! I seriously loved reading your post!! Fascinating!!

Niftic Vintage said...

What a fascinating read! Thanks for all this interesting information!

HilltopTimes said...

What a story you tell.... with a thousand words, and one picture, and the delightful tone and valuable information of a pro. Wonderful!!

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