Gardens to Gables

A Background Full of Meaning: Historic Houses and Historic Photographs

Old photographs for sale in antique or second-hand stores always give me pause. I wonder about the unknown names associated with those forgotten faces, and also  – who buys these photographs? Someone in search of insta-ancestor? Historic photographs not only provide a glimpse into the past at faces familiar and dear (and sometimes comical), but can be valuable tools for researchers studying buildings and landscapes. In my own family photographs, I zealously comb through images of grandparents, cousins, and friends to find the glimpse of a building lurking behind the people. More often than not, only corners of dwellings are captured in these sepia, and black and white prints. I therefore issue this proclamation – take your family photos in front of your house and label them! Who knows the long term benefits of your actions?

This late-1890s photograph shows Mary Richart (seated) with her nephews.

This late-1890s photograph shows Mary Richart (seated) with her nephews. My great-grandfather sits in a chair on the far right, my grandfather on his lap. The distinctive porch in the background helped us, 100 years later, identify the family home.

Despite a pretty well-documented clan, there are some sides to my family tree that don’t offer up their stories easily. My paternal grandfather, a veteran of World War I, died before I was born. A reticent man, he didn’t speak much about his family – of course, confronted with the effusive and quite verbose members of his wife’s family, he may not have had much of a choice. The photograph above  helped us identify the house in which he grew up in Owinsgville, Bath County, Kentucky.

The same house today.

The same house today.

For me, and my affinity for architecture, it felt enormously satisfying to put a face with a house. Stories tie people together – and in the absence of those stories, and in the absence of those people, places also fulfill a sense of connection. The photograph of that front yard, crowded with generations of family and dogs, may just seem like a charming old photograph to some – but labeled, and with that delightful and distinctive portico embellished with ivy in the background providing an important clue – it becomes a real place, replete with meaning and memory.

Interior photo, showing Greek Revival woodwork.

Interior photo, showing Greek Revival woodwork.

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8 Thoughts on “A Background Full of Meaning: Historic Houses and Historic Photographs

  1. I have often felt the same way when seeing old photos in antique and junk shops. Not only who buys them but also who discards them?

    Being the main collector of family photos in my family, the far more interesting aspect to any old photo is an indication of place. Where did they live, how did they live, what aspects of life were important to them, e.g.?

    Having recently been given several photos from my Thomason side of the family, perhaps the most interesting photo is the picture provided at the link below. This photo, taken in 1924, is well-worn and slightly out of focus but shows half of what appears to be a double pen log house in northeast Logan County, Kentucky. This one photo provides far more insight into the life of Thomas Lindsey Thomason, my great-great grandfather, and his family than any census record can. My next goal is to attempt to find the exact location of this house. Hopefully, a task made even simpler with a photo.

  2. Dear Janie Rice Brother. Love your blog, thanks for doing this. I have a nagging question regarding our old farmhouse in north Washington Co., KY. Why are there two front doors? Do you know the history behind these homes?

      • Janie-Rice Brother on February 8, 2016 at 2:57 pm said:

        And this is what we call a Cumberland house, because of its scale (usually one to one and one-half stories), date of construction (typically late-19th century through the 20th), and of course, the two front doors! Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Janie-Rice Brother on February 8, 2016 at 2:55 pm said:

      Thanks Nancy! I’ve been intending to write a post about two-front door houses for some time, as it is a topic I’ve researched since graduate school. A short (and simplified) answer is that the fenestration arrangement (the number and placement of doors and windows on the front of a house) was a response to the desire for symmetry at odds with the floor plan. So people wanted to have a house with two rooms, side by side, with no hallway, but they also wanted to have a facade that was pretty – and the easiest way to achieve this was to have a four bay house, with two windows and two doors. This has all sorts of historic precedent, and the two door arrangement is more common in some cultures than others. Stay tuned…I will write more on this!

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