Processing History

One of my favorite things to do is receive and arrange new donations, especially collections of photographs. I’ll be sitting in my office, perhaps cataloguing or tallying statistics, and in walks someone with a box under his or her arm. “Found this in the attic of my new house,” he’ll say, or “my great aunt made this scrapbook in the 1930s,” she’ll say. People bring these collections to the NHA because they want them to be cared for, and that starts in my office. There’s always a sense of expectation when this happens. I open the box or album and am delighted by the images of people and houses, picnics and parties, club meetings and amateur theatrics. A whole vacation will be spelled out in images, or even a whole life of relationships and events. You never know what you’ll find, and I look forward to finding such treasures.

One of the first things I have to do with a new collection of photographs is figure out who the people are in the images and where they were taken, if I can. Rarely do people take the time to label their photographs, so when they come to the NHA, it’s a challenge to identify them. I start with the information I have and start sorting.

Recently a collection of family photographs came in that featured images from Tuckernuck, ranging from the 1890s to the 1960s. These were new views, and very exciting to receive. However, it was a pile of unsorted material, and many of the people were unidentified, or only had first names written on back. Luckily, I had a few definite names for some of the people. I knew the donor’s mother’s name was Dorothy Brooks Backus, and that many of the items had belonged to the donor’s grandmother, Mary Bunker Paddock Brooks. So the approximately 100 baby pictures marked “Dorothy,” I knew were of Dorothy Brooks Backus; the woman holding her was probably her mother, Mary Bunker Paddock Brooks. Some other images were initialed on back “MBP”, so I figured this was Mary Bunker Paddock Brooks before she got married. I made a pile for each of these two women.

After a preliminary sort, I start researching the images, one of which was a group of very serious looking young women posed in a group, dressed neatly in long dresses and wearing dainty gold watches. On the back was a list of names and the label “the Octagon Club.” A search in our databases found the Octagon Club mentioned in an old Historic Nantucket article; it turned out to be a youth group brought together for “charitable works and enlightening conversation,” i.e. they put on plays and made ice cream together, and gave the profits to charity: a nineteenth-century girls’ club.

I also put together a genealogical chart of the family with as many birth and death dates as possible, which made it easier to identify who “Uncle Herbert” was. Another search of our collection told me that we have an oral history (one of the many recorded by Mary Miles) with Dorothy Brooks Backus. This gave me Dorothy’s birth and death dates, as well as additional information about her — she hated growing up on Tuckernuck!

After a while, my pile of “unidentified” has decreased considerably. Then starts the comparison of facial features. Is this person Stella Wing? I look at the image identified as Stella and the unidentified image. Colleagues are consulted. I might even scan them so I can get close-ups side by side. Often I can figure it out, because people tend to take many photos at the same time, so people have the same clothes on or are at the same place in different images. Still, age and lighting and the possibility of its being a close relation sometimes defeats me, so I end up with several folders marked “unidentified portraits.”

After sorting, I start housing the collection in pH-neutral boxes, choosing some to catalogue individually and scan for the database. Later I create web versions of each image. These photographs are available for viewing on our image database, including some of the unidentifieds, just in case someone out there knows who they are.

I’m lucky to live in a community that values its history enough that collections like these are not thrown out. These little testaments to ordinary people’s lives are powerful documents of history, and I’m pleased to play a part in its preservation.

Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004, by Georgen Charnes.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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