Wrap your old family photos in context

March 5, 2018

Wrap your old family photos in context

Hang out on Instagram long enough and you’re bound to become part of someone’s photo-a-day challenge. You might even start one of your own.

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve participated in one that involves genealogy and old family photos — #genealogyphotoaday.

The Instagram challenge sprouted from the creative mind of Melissa Dickerson (@genealogygirltalks), who publishes a calendar of daily photo prompts each month. I’ve found participating in #genealogyphotoaday provides great conversations, community building, and networking opportunities.

However, too often I’ve noticed something lacking in all these sepia-toned photos populating the photo-a-day hashtag as well as those for #familyhistory and #ancestry and more. This is where I’m going to lay down some encouragement and a challenge for you.

A photo is just a photo without this

Meet Edward Walsh, the grinnin’ man holding a pail to the right.

Old Family Photos, Family History, Cincinnati, Ohio, Context, Great Depression, Marriage, Ancestry,
Sarah Jane and Edward Walsh of Cincinnati, Ohio, in the 1930s.

Whoever took this picture captured a sweet moment. Ed stands as if he’s seen a friend, soft joy emanating from his eyes, while to his right, gazing with great affection at him, is his wife, Sarah Jane.

This is the kind of photo common on Instagram under the hashtags #familyhistory and #genealogyphotoaday.

What if I told you there’s more to see and comprehend in this photo? If you knew of the heartbreak between them, would you look at it differently? What if you know this photo, taken in the 1930s in Cincinnati, places Ed and Sarah Jane on the verge of tragedy, a tragedy succeeding generations would lock away for unexplained purposes?

Intrigued yet? Even a little? Those smiles, the affection, it takes on a whole different meaning when I tease context.

Wrap your old photos in context

The image above of Sarah Jane and Ed resembles what’s commonly posted on Instagram by genealogy hobbyists and family history enthusiasts. We’re inspired to share in hopes of attracting other likeminded historyphiles to view and hit like.

Something, however, is often missing — context.

The photo above of Sarah Jane and Ed Walsh is just an old family photo, and it’s meaningful to me because they are the grandparents of my adopted grandmother.

To anyone else, though, it’s one of millions of old family photos shared on Instagram, and it’s not likely to attract much engagement or interest, let alone community building.

Not without context.

I want to encourage you when participating in #genealogyphotoaday or #familyhistory to wrap the images you share with context. Tell us not just who’s in the picture but all the other relevant info – the where, when, and, if possible, the why.

Each and every one of us has a story, and this goes for our ancestors too. When I see old family photos on my Instagram news feed, I want to know about not only the person’s name, but about what in their lives was so compelling. What obstacles did they overcome? What catch phrases or wisdom did they impart on succeeding generations? Did they make something? Live somewhere? Survive something?

And, even more interesting, what mysteries today chip away at our understanding of their life story? So much of our research is incomplete and impossible to track down. Tell me more about that.

We get involved in genealogy and investigating family history/secrets due to an abiding curiosity. Those who chart previous generations, collect vital records, spend more time than we want to admit running down Census charts and military muster rolls, we all have a shared experience.

Let’s share it when we post on Instagram.

The sad tale of edward walsh

Ed Walsh returned to Cincinnati from military service to work as a caterer and accountant, as well as become a prominent figure among Spanish-American War veteran organizations.

He married in 1901 Sarah Jane Rowekamp, herself the granddaughter of a well-known political and law enforcement family in Cincinnati, the kind to have a large monument in a famous cemetery surrounded by the grave plots of all the members.

They had two daughters, and both had influential roles in my story, Maintenance of Way.

But in the early 1930s, a dark cloud settled over the Walsh family. Sarah Jane suffered from the onset of cancer, and as her health deteriorated, the more Ed became despondent.

As the legend goes, passed down by multiple generations, Ed could no longer watch cancer steal his beloved’s life, and so he chose to proceed her in death. He took his own life on March 22, 1932, inside their apartment in the 400 block of Oak Street in Cincinnati.

The story is tragic enough, but it’s incomplete and not entirely accurate. Here’s how the Cincinnati Enquirer covered Ed Walsh’s passing:

Family History, Ancestry, Newspaper, Cincinnati, Enquirer, Spanish-American War,
News article covering the alleged crime and subsequent suicide of Edward Walsh.

Okay, so yeah, sure, that’s some seriously heavy material right there. Not one of those joyful reminisces you have a backyard family reunion around the barbecue.

But the point is the photo above of Sarah Jane and Edward Walsh is part of a larger story and a trend in my family to pull a veil over the truth. The context of their lives makes the photograph far more compelling, and I believe this to be true about your old family photos.

Not every photo appearing on Instagram under the #familyhistory or #genealogyphotoaday categories will be soaked with such tumult. But even little details to bring the people in those images alive allows our curiosity to grow deeper and makes the sharing of these old family photos online so much more interesting.

Dave Pidgeon is a writer and parenting columnist for Susquehanna Style Magazine. He lives in Lancaster, Pa., with his wife and two sons. You can reach him at dave@creativelygenuine.com.

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