I’m a passionate collector of antique photographs—especially daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography, which were introduced to the world by Louis Daguerre in France in August of 1839.
In this day of “selfies” and smart-phone videos that share images of just about everything via the internet as soon as it happens, it’s hard to imagine the sensation caused by the first photographs—scientifically accurate portraits “written by the sun”. A daguerreotype is an image produced on a silver-coated copper plate, which uses iodine and mercury to develop it. For early daguerreotypes, you had to sit very still for many minutes, not smile or blink (your head often in a brace) and the fumes produced in the developing often made the photographer ill. Even the touch of a feather on the sensitized silver plate would scar the image, so daguerreotypes had to be protected under glass and housed in a case that opens and closes like a book.
My favorite thing to do is to research the story behind an antique image—who (or what) is the subject? When was the image taken? What is the photographer trying to tell us? While daguerreotype photography spread quickly around the world, (and nowhere was it more popular than in the United States), most people in the 1840’s and 1850’s, except for the famous or wealthy, would have only one image taken of themselves in their lifetime. Often this would be a photo of a serious couple, seated side by side, soon after their wedding. The photo was a sort of solemn, official record that they were married. And if a child died, as so often happened, or an old grandfather who had fought in the Revolutionary War passed away, the daguerreotype photographer was quickly called to “save the shadow ere the substance fade”, as the photographers’ ads often put it.
But the photographer could only do his job on a sunny day. Usually the studio would be on a top floor of a walk-up under a skylight to capture the best light—because there were no electric lights.
While I have often researched and written essays about antique and historic photographs—(see the list of titles at right)—I have rarely written about my own family’s vintage photos, although I have them hanging on several walls of my house and look at them every day. I’m going to tell the stories behind some of my antique photographs, so that you can get clues as to what to look for in your family photos from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. And I’m going to do it in two parts—first the stories of my father’s family; all of them Swedes and Norwegians, and then my mother’s family who were Swiss-French on the maternal side and Scotch-Irish on the other.
Here is a photograph of the family and house and possessions of Jorgen J. Odegaard, the man with the furry hat and bushy beard on the right. He was born in 1856 in Norway and immigrated to the United States where he married another Norwegian immigrant, Oline Kaurstad in 1870. They first settled in Iowa, but with no money and no work, they headed for Minnesota (as did many Scandinavians) in search of free land in Santiago Township. They settled near a swamp.
My father told me that Jorgen had the first pair of matched horses in the county. You can see them tied up on the left. In photographs of this era (1880’s) an itinerant photographer would come by, with his camera mounted on a tripod, knock on your door, and if you wanted a photograph, the family would be arranged in front of the house, with the most valued possessions in view. This photo with the rare pair of horses is like a photo of a man leaning on his brand new sports car. From the same period is a photo I have of the farmhouse I now live in. The whole family and farm hands are standing in front of the barn and house with the prize bull tethered front and center and the ladies in their frilly hats and long dresses standing in front of the horse-drawn buggy.
The little girl in the white pinafore or apron above was Jorgen’s oldest child and my grandmother—Ida Odegard (the second “a” in Odegaard fell out somewhere). The baby in his mother’s arms is John who, I discovered on Google, “married in 1905 and then operated the first Ford agency in the area in 1912. He offered free driving lessons with every sale, as no one knew how to operate motor vehicles. He often accepted livestock, buggies and other items in lieu of cash.”
This photo of Jorgen’s family is not an original— it’s a simple photocopy which has no value as a photograph, but to me it’s priceless.
Compare it to this photo of the same family around 20 years later. This photo is an original and printed at the bottom is “Residence of J. O. Odegard, Santiago, Sherburne Co. Minnesota, June 7 1902”. The little girl in the white pinafore in the previous photo is now the married lady sitting in a chair in a white dress, her hand touching her first of four sons—my uncle John Paulson. She had married my grandfather, Par Paulson, who is seated at the far right. Her parents, Jorgen and Oline, who’s 45 in this photo, had nine children in all and the little girl toddler between her parents is a sibling to her married sister Ida. So the toddler on the left is the aunt to the toddler on the right—and she is the same age as her nephew. I’ve been told that the house in this photo is the same as the small shack in the first photo, but it has now been expanded to house the growing family (nine children!), adding a second floor and two chimneys and lots of space.
The wonderful names of Jorgen’s children are: Ida, John, Mathilda, Edwin, Julius, Oscar, Olga, Alma, and Odin.
At the top of this post is a wedding photograph of my grandmother Ida Odegard, marrying my grandfather, Par Paulson, around 1899. I have always thought that large floral bush on her head looked fairly ridiculous but I showed it to a friend from Norway and she told me that it is a traditional “Blomster Krans”.
The wedding photograph is a cabinet card –a photograph mounted on heavy cardboard-- which has been embossed in ornate silver script “E. S. Hill, St. Cloud, Minn”. Cabinet cards, 4 inches by 5 ½ inches, were very popular from 1870 to about 1900. Photos of actors, politicians, freaks and famous people in this format were sold and collected in albums.
I knew my grandmother Ida well—she let me gather the eggs from her hen house and, after she beheaded a chicken every Sunday for dinner, we would de-feather it together. I didn’t know until I was older that Ida was a very strong-minded and independent woman who shocked her family by marrying Par Paulson, a Swede instead of a Norwegian!, and then divorcing him after they had four sons. She moved with her college-age sons to Minneapolis where she opened a boarding house and became known for her apple pie. Then she married another Swede, John Erickson, who, like her first husband, was a mail carrier. I adored John Erickson, my step-grandfather, who taught me to shoot his rifle across the Mississippi River. I only met my real grandfather, Par Paulson, once. He was totally deaf. To "talk" to him you had to write on a blackboard with chalk.
Here is my grandmother Ida holding a blonde cherub with sausage curls, a white dress and a bow in its hair. That child is my father, Robert Odegard Paulson, born April 3, 1905. It may seem shocking that he’s been dressed and groomed like a little girl, but back in the day, little boys and girls were dressed alike until about five or six years old. If you want some clues as to how to tell the boys and girls apart in vintage photographs check out the post I did called "Tots with Antique Toys--Boy or Girl?"
This photograph is printed on a nine-inch round tin plate embellished with beautiful flowers. I’ve seen other, similar photos on tin, dating around the turn of the century, but I don’t know what they’re called. (They’re not proper tintypes or ferrotypes—that’s another thing entirely.) In tiny letters under the left corner of the photo is written “copyrighted 1908 by Crover MFG.” My father would have been three years old in 1908.
In my next blog post I’ll share the stories and photos of my mother’s French-speaking ancestors, some pre-dating the civil war.