Messy Boxes

Nowadays, thanks to the internet, there are collectors around the world who try to find the descendants of long-lost family albums and ‘orphaned’ photographs. I am not sure if they have a particularly high success rate, but they persevere in the belief in the intrinsic value of the project. The albums and photographs are unearthed in junk shops, garage sales and house clearances, the family keeper of memories (for there is always one, and it is usually a she) having no doubt passed away without a worthy heir to inherit the role. The images, which are posted on the web in the hope of reuniting with their descendants, are sad and silent. They are sepia reminders of our own mortality, and the fact that we too in turn will soon be forgotten about. Many of the photographs come from the heyday of the studio Cabinet Card, where the sitters’ expressions were rigid from the immobility that was necessary for the length of the exposure, unaware that future generations will simply judge them to have been grim and stern. These images can usually never reflect the reality of the period, and often confer on their subjects a grandness that would have been absent in their daily lives.

A further limitation of these photographs is that they mostly only cover a certain time period. It is unusual to find a picture of the father as a child, and then later as a grandfather. For that you must have a chronological album spanning decades – a luxury denied to most of us. Or even a big messy box still waiting to be catalogued. I am lucky that my mother has the latter. Several messy boxes, in fact. Most of them started out life containing now defunct brands of goods from the 1940s, and for the last half a century have housed an eclectic mix of photographs from the Scottish side of the family, spanning well over a hundred years.

I remember the first evening my grandmother brought out the photograph boxes, their outdated look already exciting me with the intimations of a yesteryear of which I was not a part. I must have been around seven or eight then – the perfect age to be initiated into the delights of the family album, particularly for such a morbid child as I was. After that visit, it became a ritual: every time we went to stay with our Scottish grandparents there was always one evening set aside for the albums and the endless questions they generated. At first I couldn’t quite believe that it was possible to possess photographs that were so old. Surely cameras were too modern an invention to have been around during the century before I was born? And those strange clothes looked terribly stiff and uncomfortable. I hadn’t quite made the connection that the outfits I saw on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon children’s period dramas had actually been worn by normal people, some of whom were related to me.

My sister and I always had our favourite pictures that we searched for first: one of these was of our two ‘youngest’ great-aunts (whose Christian names were now our middle names), outside their tenement flat in a cobbled street in Edinburgh’s Dumbiedykes area, around 1920. They are both in grubby pinafores and tackety-boots – in contrast to the smart look of their older neighbourhood friend, with her lace collar and cuffs. 

Ann and Mary Neilson and Friend, Dumbiedykes, Edinburgh c1920

It was hard for us to reconcile these wary-looking little girls with the strong characters they had become, over half a century later. Thus through such photographs, we were able to see our relatives in ways we’d never imagined before, and learn about the others who had gone before, but who still touched the lives of those who’d once known them.

In the coming months, I hope to investigate some of the photographs in those messy boxes and discover more about the people they portray, as well as the times in which they lived. In this way I will put together the history of a Scottish family which encompasses much more than just a genealogy. Indeed, I intend its scope to include an investigation into the very nature of photography itself, something that grew out of my interest in discovering more about my London family (see A London Family).

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021

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