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Friday, August 24, 2012

Analyzing an Old Photograph

This 1890 photograph was taken in the home of William H. Ropes,  Salem, Mass around 1890.  This is known from handwritten information on the back of the photograph.

The woman seated at the center of the image holding the infant (her first child, Raymond Henderson,) is my Danish great-grandmother Marie Dorothea Henningsen, who arrived with her father Georg Nicolai Henningsen, mother Anna Catharina Liebsch, and siblings from Schleswig-Holstein in 1872.  At the time of this photograph, she is married to my great-grandfather Alan H. Henderson (b. Deer Isle, Maine) who is a master mariner. He is not present in this image.

Or is he?

Henningsen-Ropes - please click on image for larger size
It was common practice in the 1800's to include paintings, photographs or illustrations of family members who were not able to be present when the family photograph was being taken by a local studio photographer.

Just behind my g-grandmother on an easel, is a portrait image of her husband, Alan Henderson.  As a schooner captain who delivered goods up and down the east coast from Philadelphia to Canada, he was frequently at sea and absent. (Marie would later divorce him, and he would never be mentioned again, in my family!) Against the back wall directly to his left is undoubtedly a photograph of his ship.

The woman to the far left of the photograph is another Henningsen sister.  To her left is another portrait of a man - most likely her husband.  He appears quite a bit older than her and the easel is adorned with an elaborate scarf-like decoration.   It almost appears funereal. Research would follow to determine if he was deceased.

There is much to be gleaned from an image.  This one very purposefully includes a row of photographs along the mantlepiece behind George Ropes (the seated, bald gentleman.) These photos are likely images of ancestors or living relatives of the Ropes/Henningsen family. The other men standing in the image are Henningsen brothers and possibly a Liebsch cousin. Some of the Henningsen family settled in North Carolina after immigrating, and perhaps these smaller images are of that branch of the family.

At the very center of the photograph, we have the eldest female and mother: Anna Catherine (Liebsch) Henningsen. 

Their clothing is formal and indicative of the time period.  The room, possibly a formal parlor, has ornate wallpaper and chandelier and was probably the receiving room in the house.

The inclusion of absent family members in the form of a photograph or painting is something to look for in your family photo collections.  Not decorative or random - these framed images are very likely to be ancestors vital to your family research.

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