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Unknown Family
February 21, 2009 3:49 PM   Subscribe

Unknown Family. 15 years ago, he found a box of 44 negatives at a garage sale in Aiken, SC, and after wondering about them for a long time, posted them to Flickr in October 2008 in hopes of learning who the family is. There are a few clues, but the search seems to have gone cold.

Some (most?) of the pictures have been narrowed down to Delaware in the late 30's to early 40's, but other than that, only the names "Ellie & Herb" account for any of these people. They seem to be taken by either a professional, or a skilled amateur with access to a very nice camera.
posted by Devils Rancher (58 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can help them narrow it down. It isn't my family, or Obama's.
posted by netbros at 4:04 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


these pictures are stunning.

...he found them in his garage?
posted by puckish at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2009


I just looked through these photos after seriously thinking "Well, maybe I know them!".
posted by orme at 4:05 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not in his garage, puckish. At a "garage sale." Also known as a rummage sale or yard sale.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:09 PM on February 21, 2009


The comments on the Skyline drive car picture have the best possible clues. As one Flickr commenter correctly pointed out, Delaware tags could be the key. They just need to find someone in DelDot who could run the tag.
posted by fixedgear at 4:12 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


How would one go about tracking down information about a Delaware license plate from 1940? Seems like that'd solve the mystery. Or perhaps the institutional memory of Delaware's Plymouth dealerships and salespeople would help. I love stuff like this.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:16 PM on February 21, 2009


Wonderful shots, thank you for posting. ...I love this kind of thing.
posted by applemeat at 4:27 PM on February 21, 2009


Wow. Gorgeous photos - so vibrant! Thanks.
posted by freya_lamb at 4:43 PM on February 21, 2009


Fantastic. I have absolutely no idea who they are, but these are simply great photos.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 4:49 PM on February 21, 2009


I can't even imagine what it would be like to recognize the people in these photos. It would blow my mind.
posted by alligatorman at 5:05 PM on February 21, 2009


Just in case you had some delusion that you'll be remembered in fifty years...
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:09 PM on February 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


Did not recognize the people, but I did recognize Great Falls, Va and the Cherry Blossoms in DC.
posted by empath at 5:12 PM on February 21, 2009


It's quonsar's family. I'm sure of it.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:14 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Just in case you had some delusion that you'll be remembered in fifty years...

Sorry guys -- I'll be offline for the next 8 months, furiously adding metadata to all my digital images & scrawling names & dates on the backs of all my prints.

And writing a will that puts a pox upon anyone who puts them in a garage, then sales them.

Maybe I should hire a collections manager. (Oh, god, what if they recommend deaccessioning all my cheap antique shop paperweights? I've got to think about this. rrrggghhh.)
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:14 PM on February 21, 2009


just because it needs to be stated:
If it turns out that there is no way to put a name or history to these faces, if it is impossible to trace a currently living relative of these folks, it in no way detracts from their lives.

There is nothing sad about not leaving a legacy.

We are are lucky to see these images, and they do not care one way or another for our attention.
That said, they are wonderful pictures.
posted by Stonestock Relentless at 5:36 PM on February 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


Awesome.
Of all the great photos in there, I have to say I love this one the most, I think because it's so relatable and familiar. It looks like it could be my uncle after a big Thanksgiving dinner.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:38 PM on February 21, 2009


I recognize this lady as someone who could offer better advice than AskMeFi.
posted by gman at 5:50 PM on February 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


These are pretty cool. I'm surprised getting in the local paper didn't scare up anyone who recognized them.

The one with the blueprints, blown up, reads RAHWAY HIGH SCHOOL, so it may be possible to track them down through an architectural firm.
posted by dhartung at 5:50 PM on February 21, 2009


those are great. if that family ever finds out about this there is a reasonable chance they're actually going to be happy about having them scanned. you know, as opposed to being angry and litiguous about it the way I would be if you did that with those pictures of me being fat and dressed in early-nineties neon clothes. oh, the sins I have committed in the name of youth and girls...
posted by krautland at 5:59 PM on February 21, 2009


I'm surprised getting in the local paper didn't scare up anyone who recognized them.
They'd probably need to get it into a Delaware paper.
posted by empath at 6:05 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


The one with the blueprints, blown up, reads RAHWAY HIGH SCHOOL,

According to Wikipedia "The high school's present location was built in 1941." It's the right time period and geographic area.

Surely Rahway Public Schools has the name of the architectural firm written down some place (perhaps on the original blueprints, which may also include the name of the architect). Anybody live around there that can ask?
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:11 PM on February 21, 2009


Reminds me of Must Read After My Death, which just opened online yesterday.
posted by avex at 6:13 PM on February 21, 2009


There is nothing that unusual about these photos. I attend auctions regularly and I come across stuff like this at least two or three times a month, often coupled with some other personal items - folders full of tax returns, personal letters, sketchbooks, diaries etc. The feelings of guilt, the research, the wondering what went on and where. A lot of crap goes with acquiring the personal effects of another. In the business of house clearance, paper goods - books, photo albums, files - are often shifted out of houses after a death and put in a sale room without sorting, where they are sold by the shelf and often by the bookcase for next to nothing. They are often regarded as worthless by relatives who only have eyes for the future value of the Minton and the Regency Dresser, while the books, drawer contents, and "stuff" are lucky to be included in the sale at all. This despite some of the content I have seen - Vietnam war, Hong Kong Police, albums of photos from second world war interment camps, photos taken on board RMS Olympic (Titanic's sister ship,) beautiful fully annotated photo albums full of images of road trips across America in the 1950's.

Collectors of photographs and photo albums are legion, and this stuff is on occassion incredibly valuable, so there is no real sob story to report. The "stuff" that passes by the eyes of the descendants more often than not finds an appreciative home. That said, it's the military, professional, evocative stuff that sells. The mundane family photos and documents are binned, and there are tonnes. I must have binned several sackloads. It's hard, but then it's not my fault, these things eventually reach the end of their useful life. Various artistic projects come and go, some go to friends, some go back into auctions, eventually they are trashed.

I have a collection of nine diaries, all taken from shelves of books that have been lifted as a shelf and piled into a van without checking, most that were presumably hidden amongst the books whilst the owner was still alive. None are remarkable except one which consists of the daily remembrances of a widow who started a journal to cope with the death of her husband, full of poetry and incredibly insightful prose on death, walks in winter, despair. Writing that really deserves an audience despite there being no audience for the writings of the unremarkable lonely widower whose possesions are sold off at auction after her death. There isn't much to be done except keep it and hope somewhere down the line the opportunity arises for it to find the right home.
posted by fire&wings at 6:18 PM on February 21, 2009 [19 favorites]


Apparently they think the guy in this picture is Fred Astaire. Seems he was a local.
posted by waitingtoderail at 6:31 PM on February 21, 2009


Fantastic. Thanks.
posted by chinston at 6:37 PM on February 21, 2009


There is nothing that unusual about these photos.

Not the subject matter per se, but the one slightly unusual aspect is the quality. Even today, medium-format film cameras are rather expensive -- they're not Brownie snapshots taken by grandma or a school kid. The candids even, are well-composed, and captured. It might have been a fairly serious professional photographer's family. I'm not saying it's a bunch of undiscovered Westons or Langes, but what if it were? You'd think that even the pros snapped a few pics of their family at work & at play.

I missed the Astaire angle when I was looking through this initially, so maybe he was related to or friends with these folks, and being rich, had a photographer on hire? Dunno. I kinda like the mystery as much as the pictures.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:51 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


These are great. Thanks!
posted by rtha at 6:52 PM on February 21, 2009


There is nothing that unusual about these photos.

On one level, that is true, but in a more general sense there is something unusual about all of us.

"Rosebud" is always more than "just a sled."
posted by dhammond at 6:53 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


that is so obviously photoshopped.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:16 PM on February 21, 2009


Photos always look so much better in black and white.
posted by orange swan at 7:25 PM on February 21, 2009


Apparently they think the guy in this picture is Fred Astaire. Seems he was a local.

Well, truth is... probably 20% of men in the 1930 & 40s looked kinda like Fred Astaire. Some of them on purpose. That part of Fred Astaire's appeal... he was an average any-man who could dance a little.
posted by miss lynnster at 7:42 PM on February 21, 2009


So if I go around taking pictures of my extended family, put them on SD cards and toss them in random people's boxes in their garages...will I see headlines like this 50 years from today?

Good god, was this unremarkable.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:43 PM on February 21, 2009


I deal in photographs and antiques. I often buy out the contents of whole houses. It never ceases to amaze me how some families can just discard their past. It's a sadness really. We were once cleaning out an large estate (in a rich suburb near Chicago). As we found photo albums and individual photos, we piled them up on the kitchen table. As we were finishing up the job I asked the heir (a son.. who had flow in from California) if he needed a box or two for all of the old photos. Their was quite a pile. He waved his hand and said "Toss em". I said "You don't want them?" He looked sour and said "Nothing but bad memories there."

Yea, I kept them all. The funny thing is, everyone in the photos looked so happy.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 7:44 PM on February 21, 2009 [4 favorites]


There's a Skyline Dr in Wilmington, Delaware that is available on Street View on Google Maps. Someone more patient than me might want to click through the road and see if s/he can identify any of the dwellings that appear in the other pictures.
posted by limon at 7:52 PM on February 21, 2009


I had a girlfriend whose folks showed me a picture once of some uncle of theirs. A black-and-white of him in military uniform holding a carbine standing with a group of little guys who could have been from Vietnam or the Philippines in World War II. Obviously a story there, but they had no, I mean no curiosity about it whatsoever. This guy was living in small-town Louisiana somewhere.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:54 PM on February 21, 2009


Good god, was this unremarkable.

Yes, yes it is unremarkable. That's the very point of why so many of us find it interesting. Over the last fifty years almost every person in the developed world has shed a mountain of photos, paperwork, and other biographical detritus. What makes this unremarkable junk noteworthy is the degree to which our world is networked. From a box of random negatives a curious junk hound is asking the world who these people were and can reasonably expect an answer. The very fact that you find this humdrum indicates the profundity to which this has integrated our lives.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:02 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I feel like inventing a history (start from the beginning of the slide show)

I sat in my easy chair, stunned, trying to reconstruct the events of the past few days while they were still in my memory.

It began with my wife, Ellie, and her sister, Claire, the two of them radiant in the mid-October sun, "Herbie," she said, "I have a fabulous idea, let's drive to the country!"

And so we made the 3 hour drive out to the Shenandoah Mountains, but the weather turned on us as the elevation rose, coating the cars with the fine dusting of snow.

"Well, I doubt we'll be seeing any Cherry Blossom's today!" she said... "Do you remember those, Claire, weren't they wonderful?"

That reminded me of the first time I met Ellie, with her sister, on the lawn of her parent's house.

Their mother was a fair woman, dark hair, and open expressive eyes.

Her father was quiet, plain spoken man, balding and mustachio'd

It wasn't log after that, that we had been married, the whole family was therem and the cake was wonderful. The whole beginning of the marriage had been wonderful.

But then came our first Christmas.

When HE arrived....

Okay, I'm done for now.. somebody else do better. Feel free to take them out of order :)
posted by empath at 8:06 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Limon -- I can almost guarantee that's the Skyline Dr in Virginia. It's a popular tourist spot.
posted by empath at 8:07 PM on February 21, 2009


So if I go around taking pictures of my extended family, put them on SD cards and toss them in random people's boxes in their garages...will I see headlines like this 50 years from today?

Naw, it won't take that long, hal_c_on. The headline will look something like this.
posted by gman at 8:08 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


fire&wings: Writing that really deserves an audience despite there being no audience for the writings of the unremarkable lonely widower whose possesions are sold off at auction after her death. There isn't much to be done except keep it and hope somewhere down the line the opportunity arises for it to find the right home.

Good God, man, scan that diary and post it online immediately. In my brain, that site would receive immediate "best of the web" credentials.
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:28 PM on February 21, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think these are great and have a depth and richness that you don't see every day in family snapshots. As someone correctly pointed out, the way to get them identified would likely involve a Delaware paper, rather than the Aiken, SC paper. I bet he could find a lifestyle reporter for the Delaware News Journal to write it up. I bet Robin Brown of the Delaware Backstory would be interested.
posted by gemmy at 9:47 PM on February 21, 2009


Not the subject matter per se, but the one slightly unusual aspect is the quality. Even today, medium-format film cameras are rather expensive -- they're not Brownie snapshots taken by grandma or a school kid. The candids even, are well-composed, and captured. It might have been a fairly serious professional photographer's family. I'm not saying it's a bunch of undiscovered Westons or Langes, but what if it were? You'd think that even the pros snapped a few pics of their family at work & at play.

Yes, some of these are a little too good to match the story.

Is this for real?
posted by LarryC at 9:49 PM on February 21, 2009


My father died about a year ago. He had many papers and photos. I saved as many as I could. Have yet to go through them all. I just can't believe that a person so full of life is now gone, and I can't bear the artifacts to go with him. I would like to think some of the children in the pictures now have families of their own who will really appreciate seeing these.
posted by kindalike at 10:00 PM on February 21, 2009


If they're trying to locate the subjects of the photos, they're going about it totally wrong burying the story and images deep in the bowels of Flickr. These things need to be on an actual static web page, indexed by Google, with terms like "Ellie & Herb", "Aiken", and other clues on the page. I can vouch for how effective Google is at stuff like this.
posted by crapmatic at 11:09 PM on February 21, 2009


I grew up in Delaware (and I'm back there often), I also run (well... 'run') one of the "Delaware" groups on flickr this was initially posted in. Unfortunately I don't know much about the people in the pics... But looking it all over again and checking out "Skyline Drive" on Google maps, I can see that it's a road I'm fairly familiar with. Next time I'm in town I'll take a cruise down it and see if anything looks like it's from the photos. It's an area that's been HEAVILY redeveloped in the last 10-15 years, so, who knows.

Skyline Drive also junctions with what is my all time favorite road name, a beautiful combo: "Mermaid Stoney Batter Road."

Not that that's helpful.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 11:17 PM on February 21, 2009


These are wonderful photos and I do hope you figure out who some of the people are.

For the record, crazy stuff happens with family photos sometimes.

For example, this is my grandmother. My great-grandfather had a summer cottage in Mt. Gretna, PA. One day, around about 1900, my grandmother was at the lake there, and a photographer asked her to pose. She did (go Grandma!). She posed for 4 different scenes like this in her bathing costume. Though her face was not visible, and she is not really recognizable in any of the shots, when her father found out, he was absolutely scandalized. That was *not* what nice girls did in those days. So, great-grandpa went to the photographer and bought up all the postcards, and also the plates for them.

Fast forward many years later. Grandma thought this whole story was pretty funny, and even used to use some of the postcards to send notes to the family, so I grew up knowing the story and not thinking a lot about it. The summer cottage was still in the family, and when Grandma died it passed to my eldest uncle. In the 1960's, he sold the cottage, but neglected to do a thorough cleaning of it, and, you guessed it, left a stack of the postcards and the original plates in the attic when the place was sold (sigh!) Those postcards wound up for sale at a local antique shop, and copies wound up in the local historical society. One day (can't remember when, but I think in the early 1980's), my parents got a hankering to go back to Mt. Gretna, where my father had spent many happy summers growing up and where my parents had spent their honeymoon. They were absolutely amazed to see the postcards for sale, and also to find out that "The Bather" was of great interest to the local historian. My father went and told him that he was the son of the woman in the postcards, and they were quite thrilled to finally figure out who the woman was.
posted by gudrun at 11:17 PM on February 21, 2009 [12 favorites]


Some of the apartment buildings in the photos look just like the ones which were built in Arlington, Virginia in the 1930's and 1940's.
posted by smoothvirus at 11:24 PM on February 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lets say the photographer was 25 years old in 1940. He or she would be dead a few decades now. His or her grandkids would be in their 30s or 40s and if you showed them a photo of their grandparents in their 20s they wouldnt recognize them. Human memories have a shelf-life.

I think the only reason we care about these photos is because they arent typical garage sale photos. These are well off people and the photographer is obviously talented. That's why we suddenly must know who these people were. Its a People magazine mentality. Badly shot and posed photos from a poorer family? Trash it. Who cares.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:25 PM on February 21, 2009


I recognize this lady as someone who could offer better advice than AskMeFi.

That must make her...The Pink Superhero's mom!
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:44 AM on February 22, 2009


I don't want to know who they are. I love the anonymity.
posted by sundri at 3:01 AM on February 22, 2009


Damn, but people know how to dress back then. We have all become slobs.
posted by oddman at 7:38 AM on February 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Lets say the photographer was 25 years old in 1940. He or she would be dead a few decades now. His or her grandkids would be in their 30s or 40s and if you showed them a photo of their grandparents in their 20s they wouldnt recognize them. Human memories have a shelf-life.

My understanding was that these pictures were made from negatives. IMHO, it's pretty likely that some of these exact pictures were actually developed in the 1940s, and were included in someone's photo album. That, to me, makes it more likely that someone would recognize them.

And I also don't think its' particularly "out there" to think that current family would recognize some of the people in the pictures. All my cousins and I are intimately familiar with what our parents/grandparents/great aunts, etc. looked like when they were young in the 1930:s - 1950:s. Looking in old photo albums while grandma told the stories that go along with the pictures was a common "rainy day" activity when I was a kid, and I doubt it's all that rare to illustrate family stories with old photos.
posted by gemmy at 8:20 AM on February 22, 2009


This kind of thing is neat, but as someone who haunts flea markets and yard sales, there are untold millions of anonymous family photos (and slides) out there. Finding one family would be cool, but there are thousands and thousands of others, including the majority which are not yet on Flickr, out there. When I was 12 or 13 my family bought a paper grocery bag half full of slides at some yard sale; we watched them and made up captions and stuff and played a little detective work on them. It's a fun game, and old pictures are sort of interesting by default. I'm not sure the "must-find-the-family!" quest has a lot of interest for me, though; even if this were my own family's photos, I honestly doubt I'd recognize them. I might be able to match up the names with those of my relatives, and the photos would be of some interest, but unless one of the depicted people is still alive, the personal meaning in the photos died along with their subjects.

Would these be somehow more enlightening or meaningful to surviving family members than the photos that themselves remained with the family?

Or is this quest much more about the person who found the photos, and about our increasing difficulty, in this age of instant information, to comfortably face anonymity and the unanswerable question?
posted by Miko at 8:41 AM on February 22, 2009


Writing that really deserves an audience despite there being no audience for the writings of the unremarkable lonely widower whose possesions are sold off at auction after her death.

This seems like the perfect thing to put up on the web, so people interested in that sort of thing could find it.
posted by jayder at 9:04 AM on February 22, 2009


Surely it would delight these people if they could have known that sixty years later, thousands of people sitting in their own homes, at personal computers, would be carefully sifting through these family photos and wondering about the people depicted in them.
posted by jayder at 9:07 AM on February 22, 2009


The child in this photo looks familiar.
posted by Wet Spot at 10:22 AM on February 22, 2009


Or is this quest much more about the person who found the photos, and about our increasing difficulty, in this age of instant information, to comfortably face anonymity and the unanswerable question?
posted by Miko at 11:41 AM on February 22 [+] [!]


Can God make a rock so big that s/he her/himself can't lift it?
posted by stinkycheese at 1:09 PM on February 22, 2009


Having looked at Skyline Dr. in Wilmington via Live Maps, there is no part of it that has houses of the appropriate era (from the street scene and picnic photos). Most of them are Brady-type split-levels and the like.
posted by dhartung at 10:49 PM on February 22, 2009


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