I’ve Almost Got You

These people are identified by inscriptions, yet their stories remain stubbornly untold—at least for now.

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Mother and child, possibly Elise Briggs and her daughter Elise Von Rodenstein, albumen carte de visite, circa 1865, by the studio of Thomas Rodger, St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This beautiful carte de visite (CDV) is identified on the reverse as “Elise Von Rodenstein.” When I purchased it, I had great hopes of uncovering a full biography, but this has not yet happened. The first problem I encountered was not knowing whether the snood-wearing, polka dot-dressed mother or the equally polka-dotted child was Elise. If the infant, she may have been the Elise Von Rodenstein born in 1865 or 1866 in Fort Washington, New York, United States, to German immigrant Charles Von Rodenstein and his American wife, Elise Briggs. I am skeptical of this, however, as I can find no connection to Scotland.

Elise von Rodenstein’s potential mother, Elise Briggs, was enumerated on the 1881 Census of Kingston City, Ontario, Canada, with her six Von Rodenstein children. (Interestingly, half of the children were Catholics and the other half adherents of the Church of England.) The census said that Elise Briggs was born about 1833 in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. In 1890, Elise and her children’s enumeration escaped the conflagration that destroyed most of the decade’s U.S. Census.  In that year, Elise Briggs lived in Washington, D.C., with one of her other daughters. She was also likely the same woman who died in Manhattan, New York City, 28 October, 1920, aged 88.

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Thomas Rodger in the mid-1860s.

Elise Von Rodenstein became a nun. In 1910, she was at the Sacred Heart Convent and Loretta Sisters Schools in St. Charles, Missouri, working as a teacher, By 1915, she taught at the Academy of the Sacred Heart at University Avenue and 174th Street, New York City. Between 1920 and 1930, Elise was a nun at the Convent and Academy of the Sacred Heart in Rochester, New York. She eventually became Mother Superior of a Philadelphia convent and died there of acute coronary occlusion on 9 March, 1961.

The photographer of this CDV is quite well known. Thomas Rodger (1832-1883) studied at St. Andrews University, learned to produce the silver iodide-coated paper calotypes introduced in 1841, and became an assistant at Lord Kinnaird’s studio in Rossie Priory.

During the 1850s, Rodger won multiple awards for his photographic achievements, and in 1877 he was given the International Photographic Exhibition Medal.

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The Brown family, 1/4th-plate daguerreotype, circa 1852. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

Written inside the case of this delightful daguerreotype is “W. K. Brown, 45 yrs old; Wife, 41 years old; Minnie, 2 years old.”

Every time I look at baby Minnie’s grumpy face I can imagine her thoughts: “I hate my dress! I hate my boots! I hate my spit curls! And you behind that big box on sticks—I. Hate. You. Too!”

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No doubt but that her parents had the patience of saints.

I’ve looked to no avail for a Minnie Brown born between about 1848 and 1855. There are a few W. K. Browns and hundreds of W. Browns—William Browns, Wilhelm Browns, Walter Browns, Wilfred Browns, Wesley Browns—but none with a daughter named Minnie. If Mrs. Brown’s first name had been part of the inscription, I might have been able to suss out the family’s traces. Doing so may still be possible as more records come online. Until then, at least I can smile at eternally cranky Miss Minnie.

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Unmarked carte de visite of a woman in deep mourning, circa 1863. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

“Wife of Hugh Holmes” is written on reverse of this melancholy CDV. Assuming the heartbroken subject wore mourning for her spouse, I have looked into records of a number of men. The most promising was Hugh P. Holmes of Maine, who was born in 1833 and who died of Typhoid in August 1861, one month into his service with the 7th Regiment, Maine Volunteer Infantry. However, I can find no record of a marriage for this man. Hugh Holmes’s father filed a pension claim on his son many years later, but no widow is listed in the paperwork.

Another possibility is that Mrs. Holmes was not in mourning for her spouse, but for another close family member. This may indeed be more likely because Mrs. Holmes’s bonnet does not include white inner ruching signifying a widow. However, this practice was less common in the United States than in Great Britain. If this Mrs. Holmes did not mourn a spouse, it will be nearly impossible to identify her. Ω


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A happy New Year, Gentle Readers. May 2017 be kind to all your clan!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pou’d the gowans fine;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.

And days of auld lang syne, my dear,
And days of auld lang syne.
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere!
and gie’s a hand o’ thine!
And we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught,
for auld lang syne.

—1788 poem by Robert Burns set to the tune of a traditional folk song.

To Be, or Not to Be, a Victorian Postmortem

If the baby was not dead, but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms?

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Written on reverse: “Mother, Me, Duncan (Died 10-19), and Nanny McFalls,” Scottish albumen cabinet card by the studio of E. Geering, Aberdeen, circa 1888. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This is an puzzling image—and one for which I am interested in reader input. The inscription on the image, printed in pencil, reads: “Mother, Me, Duncan (died 10-19), and Nanny McFalls.”

When I purchased the cabinet card, I presumed that it was a postmortem image showing a deceased child guarded by his or her nanny, who wore a black bow on her white cap as well as a black dress with a white pin-front apron. The child’s well-heeled mother, in a proper dark dress, raised her eyes to heaven as if for angelic support, clutching her remaining offspring, who held a large china doll and looked warily at the camera.

The baby rested upon a draped piece of furniture in a position that indicated the illusion of sleeping rather than in-one’s-face death, which was a style of Victorian postmortem images that grew increasingly popular as the turn of the millennium approached.

The infant showed no visible signs of illness, rigor mortis, or decomposition. The child was not dressed for burial but wore regular clothing for an infant of his age, including little hard-soled leather walking shoes. The nanny’s hand rested on his arm while she faced the camera without any grief apparent. If the baby was not dead but sleeping, why was he laid on a covered cushion or small table instead of being held in his nanny’s arms? Also, he was old enough to be woken to have his picture taken. Why would he have been posed this way if he was just having a wee nap?

The fashions shown in this image date it, I am confident, between 1887 and 1890. This accords exactly with the presence of photographer Edmund Geering in Abderdeen, Scotland. Geering was an Englishman born in Sussex in about 1843. He was active as a photographer in Kincardineshire by 1871. He married a Scotswoman and was, according to Aberdeen city directories, operating out of 10 Union Place from the early 1880s to about 1889.

So the fashions, the type of photo, and the career of the photographer all place the image in the late 1880s. This brings me to the death date noted in the inscription: “10-19.” What does it mean? October 19? October 1919? If the latter, this is not a postmortem image at all and is instead simply a photo of an affluent woman, her children, and her servant. If the date refers only to a month and a day, why is there no year?

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The cabin card’s reverse with the inscription at the top.

One possibility is that Duncan was not the baby, but the child. The baby grew up to become the writer of the inscription and Duncan was actually the child in the frilly dress holding the doll. In fact, the child’s hair was parted on the side, which was one indicator of maleness in an age where boys and girls dressed alike during the first years of life. In this scenario, it was the baby’s brother, Duncan, who died as an adult in October 1919.

My fellow Flickr historian and actual cousin, Laura Harrison, opined, “If you look at the order of names, it would seem ‘Me’ is the tot and ‘Duncan’ is the baby. With October 1919 being the date of death, and assuming the picture was taken between 1881 and 1891, the baby could have served in World War I and died in 1919 from battle injuries. A lot of soldiers died in the years after the war due to injuries.”

Good point, cousin.

After looking at the reverse inscription, Flickr user Christie Harris chimed in, “The inscription looks like it was probably written well after the photo was taken; I think the 1919 [death date] would be more likely.” I agree with Christie that the handwriting of the inscriber was quite modern and was added many years later.

And so we are left with a mystery. Actually, two: I genuinely want to know more about Nanny McFalls. I searched for her as best I could, but with so little to go on, I could not identify her. In the image, she seems a cheerful, young Scottish woman who cared about her charges and who was loved enough in return to earn a place in her employer’s family portrait. Ω