When my great-grandmother moved in with my grandparents in the late 1940s following the unexpected death of her husband, she was only able to bring along a few possessions to the small 1930s four-in-a-block house in West Edinburgh where she’d have to share a bedroom with her granddaughter. The photograph boxes and albums that travelled with her were thus obviously of importance, and often I wonder what would have happened to them had they fallen into the hands of another branch of the family whose descendants were not so interested in social history.
As it was, my great-grandmother only decided to stay with this particular daughter and her husband because they were a one-child family with more living space. However, my great-grandmother did depart for weekends and weeks at a time to visit some of her other adult children and their families, giving my grandmother what must have been a welcome break and a little more freedom in a life that was already circumscribed by the societal pressure of the times in which she lived.
My Great Grandmother with her oldest son Adam, c1950
Among these messy boxes that my mother inherited was an album that belonged to my mother’s oldest uncle – and my great-grandmother’s ‘favourite’ child. Adam had been a signaller in World War One (see The Portrait in the Shed), and after surviving the conflict he met local Leith girl Lilly Blyth, a book sewer, through his work as a letterpress printer at McDougall Educational Company, on Leith Walk. Adam married Lilly in 1926. and like my grandparents they also only had one child – my mother’s older cousin Robert – and lived with Lilly’s Shetlandic mother (Granny Blyth) after their marriage.
Adam Neilson’s Photograph Album
My mother remembers their house in Leith Walk as being very old-fashioned with religious paintings on the walls until the house was modernised and a bathroom added after Granny Blyth died. She recalled being taken to the 81-year-old woman’s deathbed in 1943 and was then scared when she returned to the house on a subsequent visit and her aunt and uncle mentioned still being able to hear the old woman’s walking stick tapping down the hallway. My mother had literally interpreted this as meaning there must be a ghostly presence!
Adam and Lilly, prior to their marriage in 1926
I’m not quite sure why Great Uncle Adam did not ever want his own photograph album to remain in his family. Perhaps he already had copies of most the images, or maybe he just forgot to collect the album from his parents’ house when he left home to marry Lilly. Or could it be that my mother and I are just imagining that this album belonged to Adam? But then I look through it again and see pictures of his friends and Lilly’s friends, and pictures of Lilly’s family and people who my mother cannot put a name to, and agree that it more than likely once belonged to him.
Sincerely Yours, Lilly, Oct 1920
One of the most noticeable things about this album is the number of portraits of young women – and to a lesser extent, men – which appear to have been made into postcards in order to give to friends and family. Obviously these type of photographs were not just limited to young, single adults; in the collection as a whole there are also many of these taken of children as well as couples and families. But in Adam’s album there seemed to be a predominant amount of hundred-year old ‘selfies’, many which were signed with Sincerely Yours (or variations thereof), which reminded me of the old teenage habit of swapping miniature official school portraits with friends at the end of the school year, a sort of British version of the American yearbook.
From Yours Sincerely, Mary c1920
How I love these old images of young adults in their physical prime looking wistful and serious or supressing shy smiles, all the while sporting the latest hairdos and fashions. Some regard the camera boldly and others have a more guarded countenance, leaving subtle clues about their personalities that may or may not lead us to the truth. And what did it mean when you gave someone a copy of your official studio portrait at that time? Did you have to be family or close friends or dating before you took such a step?
Sincerely Yours, Jean, March 1921 (Lilly’s older sister)
Jean Neilson, Adam’s younger sister c1920
A’ You, Alex – Friend of Lilly or Adam, c1920
The vintage ‘selfies’ in Adam and Lilly’s collection range from the Edwardian-style disembodied face set sail in a sea of white space, to the upper body and full length ones from the decade which followed. They are sometimes signed on the front or the back, but unfortunately very few bear a message on the reverse, despite the postcard format. Apart from a few of Lilly and Adam’s brothers and sisters, most appear to be of unknown friends, in particular young women (who were possibly more likely to be friends and colleagues of Lilly’s). Some of these girls look surprisingly modern, despite their dated clothes and hairstyles, while others are harder to imagine in todays’ world.
Unsigned Pictures of Lilly’s Friends, c1920
The middle-aged and older are unsurprisingly absent from the collection. Not for them the modern tyranny of constantly having to be on their guard for the ubiquitous camera phone wielded by younger friends and relatives. The maturing section of the population from a century ago could mainly be left to age gracefully, leaving the posing and the exchange of portraits to those who were under thirty.
The Incidental Genealogist, May 2023