Family photographs from the First World War: A Rural Scene, c.1915-18

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A contact and I have been working on this rural Wiltshire scene in connection with a Great War memorial project. The photograph is undated, like so many old photographic images, and I have been ‘reading’ the picture clues to determine an accurate time frame. The evidence of fashion is always reliable and here the young woman standing in front of the fence wears a tailored suit datable from its length and cut to c.1915-18. It follows the general style of many WW1-era female uniforms and in fact the contrasting collar and cuffs of her jacket could possibly signify some kind of uniform. Might she be a visitor to the cottages - a messenger or despatch rider or similar…? Perhaps she has just dismounted from the motorbike to the left of the picture.

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Although there are several women and children in the photograph, the absence of adult males is striking - another detail that supports the probability of a First World War date. Two or three households occupied these semi-detached thatched cottages, one family with 13 children residing there from 1908 until 1975, when the final family member moved out. For some years three brothers were the last remaining residents: one had lost his leg in the Great War and had a peg-leg; he cooked for the other two, who worked as foresters and gardeners on a nearby estate. Tragically, another brother had been killed at Gallipoli in 1915 – perhaps in the same year or shortly before this picturesque photograph was taken.   

Photos, artworks and costume items at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014

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Every year I date photographs and, unofficially, various other family heirlooms, at the annual Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show at Kensington Olympia. This year I worked for Genes Reunited and for Family Tree magazine, who kindly gave permission for me to feature this photograph and the photo below.

One of the first items brought to the FT stand on Saturday was a beautiful 19th-century bonnet belonging to Jean Follett from the West Surrey Family History Society. Mainly hand-sewn, this delicate item from her family collection had been expertly fashioned from fine white cotton material, shaped with cording and ornamented with broderie anglaise. Perhaps a baby’s cap or a sun bonnet for a child or small woman, I thought a date in the 1830s possible from the tall shape of the crown, but there also appeared to be traces of some machine-stitching, suggesting possibly a later date or subsequent alterations. I suggested that Jean contact her nearby Chertsey Museum, who have a dedicated costume curator. Hopefully they will be able to take an expert look and narrow down the identification for her.

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Another highlight of Saturday was a visit from FT reader Heather Redman from Hampshire, who brought along a wonderful early 20th century snapshot album containing many photos taken by - and of - her paternal grandfather, John Neale. Heather has sent me scans of some of the pages and kindly gave permission to share these on my blog.

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Many families did not acquire their first household camera until the inter-war era, but there were significant numbers of keen ‘snap shooters’ around the turn of the century and by 1900 it seems that John - still a young man - was using a personal camera to record his life, for example, his local surroundings, his work as a smart shop assistant at Guards outfitters in Romsey, group outings such as cycle trips and boat rides with friends/work colleagues and hockey matches.

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These candid views not only show vividly how Heather’s grandfather and other young people living near the south coast enjoyed spending their free time, but also offer superb glimpses of everyday warm weather dress at the very end of the Victorian era. Ladies wearing cool cotton blouses and carrying parasols arrange their cumbersome skirts, gents have donned comfortable knee breeches for cycling and straw boaters are popular hats for summer..

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During the early 1910s John was even experimenting with indoor photography, as seen in the top of the above two photos, depicting his second wife and young son, Heather’s uncle, born in 1907. Illuminating interiors for amateur indoor photography was not at all easy in the days before modern, safe flash equipment, but here is a rare scene showing relatives at ease in their own home over 100 years ago, just before the First World War. The snapshot below the interior shot is post-war in date - late 1910s or early 1920s, judging from the fashions. Charabanc outings were enormously popular until the later 1930s and many of these photos survive in family collections.
Who Do You Think You Are? Live always produces some wonderful family heirlooms and I would like to thank everyone who shared their photographs and precious mementoes with me and others on the stand. More impressions of the show courtesy the Family Tree team can be seen here: http://family-tree.co.uk/2014/02/enjoyed-wdytyalive/
Until next year…

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs

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My latest book was published last week: Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs: A Complete Guide for Family and Local Historians (Pen & Sword, January 2014) http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Tracing-Your-Ancestors-through-Family-Photographs/p/6043/ 

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This in-depth guide is the result of over 25 years’ professional experience of dating, analysing and interpreting many thousands of photographs from private family picture collections, as well as images from lpublic archive, library and museum collections. Covering early photographs dating from the 1840s and 1850s to mid-20th century snapshots, the book spans a hundred years of photographic images that have never been published in book form before.

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Dealing firstly with how to date photographs, the book demonstrates how to use various photograph dating techniques to establish the most accurate time frame possible. This includes recognising different photographic formats, investigating photographers and studios and estimating the date range of the card mount.  

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There are also chapters explaining how to date the visual image from the composition of the subject(s), from the studio or natural setting of the photograph, and, especially, from the fashions worn by our ancestors - their clothing, accessories and hairstyles.

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In the next section, the book explains how to study photographs at a more advanced level, offering tips for spotting the occasion behind the photograph, identifying and understanding photographic copies and dealing with old photograph albums and their contents. It also addresses the main issues that arise when scrutinising old photographs, for example judging age and facial likeness or estimating social status.

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The next major section of the book deals with the ways in which photographs reflect the lives of our past family members, providing important and fascinating details about ancestors’ and relatives’ weddings, occupations and leisure activities.

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In recognition of the 2014 centenary of the outbreak of WW1, there is a dedicated wartime photographs chapter which discusses at length how to date, investigate and understand the kinds of photographs that survive from the First World War, as well as from the Second World War. These were major conflicts that affected all of our families and for which there survives much visual evidence.

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Photographs with strong local connections also have their own chapter of the book, emphasising the powerful links that exist between personal family history and the wider history of the area in which forebears lived. This explores school photographs, pictures of local industries in which ancestors were employed, district sports teams to which they belonged and so on, suggesting ways of investigating these photographs, using the many local resources available to researchers. 

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Many of us have forebears who moved abroad or who travelled with work and so photographs taken overseas are also covered in the book - both formal studio portraits and casual outdoor snapshots from locations as diverse as Canada, Malta, India, South America and Egypt.

I hope that there will be something for everyone in Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs. Among the 150 dated illustrations, there should be many examples that typify the kinds of photographs occurring in today’s family and local picture collections.

Tracing Your Ancestors Through Family Photographs (Pen & Sword Books, January 2014) http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Tracing-Your-Ancestors-through-Family-Photographs/p/6043/ 

Uncle Holly and Selfridges Christmas Grotto

As small children growing up in a Buckinghamshire village during the 1960s, every December my sister and I were taken on the train to London as a pre-Christmas treat. We went especially to see the Christmas lights in Oxford Street, marvel at the magical window displays in Selfridges and visit Santa’s Grotto there. Every year we came home exhausted, but each with a special present from Father Christmas. In fact, it wasn’t so much Santa that I remember, but his sidekick, Uncle Holly - a festive character dressed in green and wearing a top hat, who greeted children while they were waiting to see Santa and gave them a badge. 

Judging from online references to ‘Mr Holly’, as I think we called him, he seems to have been part of the Selfridges and Lewis stores’ Christmas Grotto experience during the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, but evidently then fell from fashion. Here I am, aged three, in a knitted cardigan, proudly displaying my Uncle Holly badge. The next year my baby sister would have her own badge too. Sadly we didn’t keep them, but here is visual proof: I was once a Member of the Uncle Holly Circle. 

1920s Evening gowns

Anyone following Downton Abbey on TV will have enjoyed the beautiful evening wear featured on yesterday’s episode. 1920s evening gowns and accessories, influenced by the opulent stage designs created by Léon Bakst for the Ballet Russes and by the more exotic elements of Art Deco style, are among the most stunning fashions of the 20th century.

Early in the decade evening gowns were long, clinging and feminine, worn low on the calf or ankle-length. Bodices were short-sleeved or sleeveless, often layered, shaped into a plunging V-shape at the back. or styled along classical lines, worn off one shoulder or fastened with sparkling diamanté or metallic chain straps. Fashionable materials were floating chiffon, gleaming silk or sumptuous velvet, in rich colours or dramatic black ornamented with glittering beads. 

This elegant early-1920s evening dress is formed of black beaded net layered over black silk and has chiffon kimono-style sleeves. From: http://www.1860-1960.com/

By the mid-1920s jazz music and energetic dancing were all the rage and flapper dance frocks mirrored this trend. Short, narrow dresses featured undulating hemlines or swaying fringes, were slit at the sides or layered with multiple strips of material, to accentuate movement. Shimmering silks and gleaming silver or gold lamés embroidered with lustrous pearls, shining sequins, bright beads and glinting metallic threads reflected light and created an effect of sparkling brilliance. Fashionable late-1920s evening colours ranged from bold black and dazzling white, through Nile green and sky blue to hot orange and begonia.  

This vibrant late-1920s flapper dance frock with vandyked hem is formed of a red underslip beneath a sheer red silk chiffon overdress decorated with cobalt-blue beads. From: http://www.1860-1960.com/

Fashionable 1920s evening accessories included cloaks, shawls, feather boas, tiaras, bandeaux, dance shoes, slave bangles, pendant earrings, decorative bags and cosmetics compacts, fans and cigarette holders.

1920s silver brocade dance shoes from http://www.1860-1960.com/

A complete chapter on 1920s evening wear features in my new book,  ’Fashion in the 1920s’ (Shire Library, 2013):  http://www.shirebooks.co.uk/store/Fashion-in-the-1920s_9780747813088

Fashion in the 1920s: Everyday dress in family photographs

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Last month my latest book was published by Shire: Fashion in the 1920s. What better decade to cover, given the recent film re-make of The Great Gatsby, forthcoming new TV series of our favourite costume drama, Downton Abbey and a new six-part post-WW1 gangster drama about to be aired by the BBC - Peaky Blinders.  

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Entitled Fashion in the 1920s, the book is, however, not only about high fashion and exotic ‘flapper’ style, but covers the dress of men, women and children during this influential decade, both the elite trend-setters and ordinary people - our parents, grandparents and great grandparents, who attended the local school, found a job, got married, and had their own families. 

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During the 1920s many families acquired their first household camera - the Box Brownie or a pocket or folding model - and began to take amateur snapshots posed in the garden at home or out and about, on day trips and holidays and at social and sporting events.

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Many original photographs from the 1920s feature in the new book and demonstrate how our family members spent their leisure time and what they wore for different occasions, from weddings to holidays.

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Although beautiful coloured fashion plates and even paintings are used to illustrate Fashion in the 1920s, black and white images reflect the kinds of photographs to be found in ordinary family photograph collections. These are firmly or closely dated and provide an accurate picture of regular dress, as worn by the wider population.

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Fashion in the 1920s (Shire, August 2013)contains 85 illustrations and is great value for money. It can be bought direct from the Shire website: http://www.shirebooks.co.uk/store/Fashion-in-the-1920s_9780747813088 or from Amazon or other online retailers.  

The Provence lavender industry

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Last week I visited Provence, where fields of stunning purple/blue lavender were in full bloom. Lavender plants grow wild in parts of southern France but the highest quality lavender has been farmed commercially mainly in Provence, for centuries. The word ‘lavender’ is thought to derive from the Latin ‘lavare’, meaning to wash or cleanse, since the plant’s antiseptic and healing properties were recognised by the Romans, although lavender and its properties were  known to earlier civilisations, being used by druggists in ancient times and, for example, by the Egyptians, in the mummification process. 

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Many species of lavender are found in Provence, including superior or true lavender, which typically grows at altitudes of 800-1200m above sea level, and lavandin, found lower down at altitudes of around 200-800m above sea level. In medieval and Renaissance Europe both the flowers and the essential oils distilled from lavender were in high demand among the wealthy, to scent the home, perfume drawers, for bathing and for a variety of medicinal uses, including warding off disease and curing ailments ranging from insomnia and migraines to lymphatic disorders and jaundice. 

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Historically lavender was reaped by hand, using a scythe. Women and children carried out this back-breaking work on a seasonal basis, carrying the cut lavender in a large canvas sack called a trousse, as seen in this vintage photograph from the Lavender Museum at Coustellet, Provence. Wide hats were worn as protection from the searing summer heat on the arid slopes. During the 1950s harvesting by hand began to be replaced by mechanical scything, and this was considerably more profitable, although some independent growers may gather in the lavender sheafs by hand today.

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Traditionally men operated the copper stills that were used in the distillation process: smaller stills were often mobile apparatus, transported by donkeys or oxen to the production site, while larger stills were fixed. For more information on the distillation process and to see original copper stills dating back to the 17th century, visit the Lavender Museum at Coustellet.

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A large proportion of the essential oils obtained from lavender and lavandin were traditionally sold to the perfume industry centred in Grasse. A unique fragrance with many different constituents, lavender became the major ingredient in the manufacture of perfume, the essence being bottled in coloured glass phials to prevent evaporation.  

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Exported all over the world, Provence lavender was also used in soaps, powders, lotions, infusions and other fragrant products, as it is still today. There is also a flourishing market for lavender sachets, perfume burners and dried flowers, as well as delicious lavender honey - tempting items that help to keep alive the historic Provence lavender industry . 

To learn more about the lavender of Provence, visit the wonderful Musee de la Lavande at Coustellet, Provence: http://www.thelavendermuseum.com/

A fashionable postcard photograph, c.1910-13

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This formal photograph on a postcard mount was bought recently at the York Expo Postcard Fair. Postcard photographs - sometimes called ‘real photo postcards’ were fashionable for over 40 years, between the early-1900s and 1940s, and millions of examples survive today.

Little is known about the young woman in this studio portrait, except that her name was Lil, but her image can be dated firmly to the late-Edwardian/pre-First World War era from her fashionable appearance. Her ‘tailor-made’ suit comprising a long jacket and ankle-length skirt is worn over a good white blouse. She wears a narrow bar brooch, crucifix on a fine chain and carries leather gloves and a walking stick. Her smart ensemble is completed by an enormous hat, the style of which dates this photograph closely to c.1910-13.

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Often postcards are blank on the back, having been kept solely for the photographic image on the front, but sometimes they have been sent to someone, as in this case; since the reverse shows no stamp or postmark, it must have been posted in an envelope. 

An interesting message has been addressed by this young lady, Lil, to a relative or close friend called Edie. She writes (in pencil):

Dear Edie

How do you like this one, not bad. Would you ask Mrs Edds if she will cut me off the pattern of my coat and let me have it as May wants me to make one for her. Love from Lil.

Clearly Lil was satisfied with how she looked in this photograph and was keen to share the effect with others. Her request also demonstrates how before the First World Warmany female dress items were still individually made. Women often swapped fashion ideas and garment patterns, perhaps making clothes for themselves and for relatives and friends if they were skilled needlewomen, although professional dressmakers and seamstresses were also employed at times.

Personal notes like this postcard message are fascinating and of great historical value: they don’t often make the history books, but offer a wonderful glimpse into how earlier generations lived. Naturally, dress historians and enthusiasts will find the combination of stylish image and written details about clothing especially interesting.  

Dressed to impress: An 1860s carte de visite photograph and a green silk gown

Dating photographs at the recent Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show, I was very lucky to see not only a fine mid-1860s carte de visite photograph of a fashionably-dressed young woman, but also a length of the actual fabric used to make her gown. The lady in the photo was Jean Follett’s great great aunt, Mary Calder (nee Jamieson) and the family have carefully preserved the very dress that she wore in the photograph almost 150 years ago. This extra length of material was found only recently, tucked away in an old suitcase. No doubt its safe storage away from the light had helped to preserve its vibrant emerald green colour. The fabric is a stiff silk with a very fine black stripe that isn’t evident in the photograph, but Jean confirmed that the surviving dress is also trimmed with black bows down the front of the skirt and that the pleated edging around the hem also incorporates a narrow band of black braiding - a very stylish and co-ordinated outfit! 

Black and white Victorian photographs can demonstrate the style of garments, but they tell us very little of the colours worn by earlier generations. However we know that bold-coloured silks were very fashionable in the 1860s. This fashion plate from 1863 demonstrates some of the vivid hues then in vogue for ladies’ clothing materials, including an emerald green very close to the colour of our fabric. The taste for vibrant colours was inspired by the recent development of the first chemical (aniline) dyes. Mauvine - a strong purple shade - came into existence in 1856 and in the following years the spectrum of new colours commercially available for dress fabrics ranged from violets and blues to greens and reds.

The ancestor in the photograph may only have been a domestic servant  but she was dressed to impress in her special portrait and was bang up to date with the latest 1860s fashions!   

Dating Family Photos at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2013 - A seaside tintype from the early-mid 1930s

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Every year at Who Do You Think You Are? Live, the world’s largest family history event, I date close to a thousand photographs (and some artworks) brought along by members of the public. One of the dozens of tintypes that I dated this year is shown above. 

Tintypes were fashionable in Britain broadly between the 1870s and 1940s, although a few tintype photographers may still have been operating in the 1950s. Tintypes (or ferrotypes) were cheap on-the-spot photographs that were often taken outdoors, for example at the seaside. They rarely have any information attached and the only way to date them accurately is from the fashion clues.

Here the neat tintype photograph is set into a decorative card mount with deckled edges. The image represents a young woman whose short waved hairstyle and softly draped clothing dates this to the early-mid 1930s. The mount is printed with a lively seafront scene complete with promenade and pier, the dress of the strolling figures dateable to c.1926-30, so the photographer was using mounts that were a few years old. This is a great photographic holiday souvenir taken around 80 years ago.