This summer I was going through boxes of family papers and other materials that I had moved from my parent’s house in Salina. Generations of family archives had ended up with me, and I was separating the wheat from the chaff. One box contained stacks of old photographs, which looked like they had been taken from around the turn of the century into the 1920’s.
These photographs were all studio portraits. I assumed they were of family, but I was sure that I’d never seen them before. No one looked even vaguely familiar. Who were these people? Then I took a photograph off the top of one stack, flipping it over to see if there was any identification on the back. There was a name written in pencil, and I gasped as I read it: I was looking at an early version of my own handwriting.
As I examined the back of photo after photo, each with the same writing, a long-forgotten scene emerged from my mind. It’s a Sunday afternoon, sometime during my elementary school years, and I’m sitting on the living room floor in my grandparents’ house. Next to me is a pile of old photographs, and as I pull a photograph from the stack and hold it up, my grandfather, seated in his chair, tells me who it is — “Aunt Ruth Maxwell, Uncle Bob McMurray, Cousin Emma Bolin.”
And if my grandmother doesn’t chime in with any additions or corrections, I write the name in pencil (I observed correct archival practices at even a very young age) on the back of the photograph.
My grandparents knew that the day would soon come when they would not be here to identify old photographs. They were passing the family history to a new generation, and they didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
As part of the Linn Peterson Collection at the McPherson Public Library, we are processing a large number of historic photographs, including many portraits. Originating from many sources and saved by Linn, the portraits are now in our photograph archive. But we discovered that about half of them were without any identification. The faces that no one could imagine would ever be forgotten — a father, sister, cousin, uncle or friend — are now unknown.
During the months of November and December, a selection of these mystery portraits will be on display at the library in “Unknown: Mystery Portraits from the Linn Peterson Collection.”
Ironically, the family portraits in my box bear many similarities with those hanging on the wall in the library meeting room. Many were taken at about the same time period, and many were taken in the McPherson area and by some of the same photographers.
Page 2 of 2 - But the unknown men, women and children whose faces you see in the exhibit had no one writing their names on the back of their portraits. They are now forever shrouded in mystery. I hope that all of you will visit the library and spend some time in this special exhibit. And then I hope that you will go home and find a pencil.
— Steve Read, director of the McPherson Public Library