Left Picture: Unknown Couple
Right Picture: Unknown Family of 3

Wakefield Museum MUSINGS: "Unidentified Photographs"

By Jim Beck, Curator

Collections in museums around the country vary a great deal. Some museums specialize in art, others in gathering artifacts of the past. But there is one thing every museum seems to have – a collection of unidentified photographs. They come in every size and shape. Some are faded, others are as clear and bright as the day they were purchased. Some feature babies and children; others show us couples and family groupings. They all have a shared characteristic – they have no name or names written on the back. We don’t know the who, what, when, where, or why of the photograph, and most likely we never will.

People who donate unidentified photographs to museums are frustrated as well. The photos have been passed down through the family, and everyone who would be able to identify the people in the pictures is long gone. The pictures are too valuable to throw away, but they are not as valuable as they would be if we knew the names of the people in the pictures. All we know is that at one time, the owner of these pictures knew exactly who was in the portrait. They simply did not take the time to jot down the names on the back of the photo.

Photography was invented in the 1820s. Slowly inventers discovered various ways of placing images of people on glass, tin, or paper. When our part of the country was being settled, photography studios were popping up in towns and itinerant photographers were traveling through the countryside to help people preserve images of their family at important events and milestones in their lives. Few of these pioneer families owned cameras – that would come later. But many families treasured the pictures they possessed. We now take pictures for granted. For our great grandparents, however, the portraits were as wondrous as the latest iPad is for us.

The two accompanying pictures are unidentified photos we have in the Wakefield Museum. One features a family of three. The father is a tall man proudly wearing a watch chain and holding a pair of reading glasses. The mother is shorter in stature and seems to sport a practical, short hairstyle. The only child in the picture appears to be a son destined to be tall like his father. Both father and son buttonerd their coats only at the top. The second portrait features an older couple sitting on dining room chairs that have been moved outside for the picture-taking session. They both display kindly smiles, an unusual feature of early portrait photography. Perhaps it is their wedding anniversary. Their 30th? 40th? 50th?

We keep these photographs in the wistful hope that someone will come in some day and be able to tell us who these photographed people were. Meanwhile, take out your pencil and jot down names of people on the back of pictures you own. If you don’t do it, no one will.

The Wakefield Museum is located at 604 6th Street in Wakefield. On March 21, we begin our season of expanded hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 1-4 P.M. Come visit us and browse through our collection of unidentified photos.