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Photo of the Month - July 2014

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Genes Advisor 30 Jun 2014 15:19

Dress-historian, portrait specialist and photo detective Jayne Shrimpton is on hand to date your family photos.



I believe this family photograph includes (second row, third lady from the left) my great aunt, Rose Ann Matilda Elton, who was born in 1888 and died in 1914 when she was just 25 years old. Can you please put an approximate date on the photo and can you tell me anything about the type and size of the house. Also do you think all of the people here are servants as some of the ladies are very nicely-dressed?

Jayne Shrimpton's analysis:

This is an interesting photograph – one that may not necessarily be quite what, at first glance, it appears to be. Being an indoor group scene that demonstrates a pleasing composition and careful positioning of several figures so that they can each be clearly seen, this is most likely to be the work of a local professional photographer hired to come out to visit this location. When analysing any old photograph, but especially one like this, set in unidentified surroundings, it is best to begin by establishing an accurate time frame that will then provide a firm base for a realistic interpretation of the image and perhaps further investigations.

The date range of this photograph can be successfully gleaned from the appearance of the young women or girls. They are all well-dressed in clean, fashionable working outfits that we cannot see in their entirety, but comprise a variety of everyday cotton dresses teamed with aprons and some smarter blouses. The two main types of neckline displayed here – high, choker-like collars (as seen on your great aunt and a girl at the end of the row) and the slightly lower, rounded style – together confirm a late-Edwardian date. Even more helpful for dating are the fashionable hairstyles of most of the girls, their hair parted centrally or a little to one side and the length of their tresses drawn up and pinned into two full puffs or swathes above the temples – a youthful mode fashionable during the few years leading up to the First World War. The young man wears the characteristic turned-down but still heavily-starched shirt collar of the Edwardian era with the usual long knotted tie, his clean-shaven face the choice of the younger generation in the early twentieth century. Taking all the fashion clues into account, the date of this scene should be c.1910-1914. I am not sure when exactly in 1914 Rose died, but regardless, this photograph was taken within a few years of her tragically early death and therefore depicts her aged in her early twenties.

Several of the figures here have rolled up their sleeves for work and wear protective white aprons, the man’s apron the bibbed style with a loop that hooked onto a waistcoat button and the ladies’ the pinafore type or narrower aprons with shoulder straps, a style typical of the early 1910s. They all definitely look to be of working class and servile status – no ladies of the manor posing in their midst! They could well be domestic servants, which I think is your assumption, and indeed the setting here appears to be a large kitchen of some description: we see what look like a set of switches or buzzers to the left, one girl may be holding a large bowl (not clear in this scan), and there are glasses and crockery on the shelves and table to the back.

However, looking more closely, I am not certain that this does represent the kitchen and kitchen staff of a domestic house. We see at least two long, plain tables with collapsible panels, suitable for seating many people and the style and quantity of cups and glasses stacked on the selves supports the possibility of catering on a mass scale for ordinary people. So, I would suggest that either this is the kitchen of a very large private house employing dozens of servants who ate together at trestle tables, or else it is a different type of setting entirely. As you point out, some women appear better-dressed than others and this probably identifies them as the individuals who served food and drinks to others, as opposed to the general kitchen hands. In my opinion and experience, they could well be waitresses, especially the girls wearing jewellery, fancier aprons and particularly the frilly white blouse and bow tie - not at all typical of a domestic parlour maid’s uniform, but the kind of dressy wear sometimes adopted by waitresses in cafes and tea shops.

To conclude, my feeling is that these may be the staff of some kind of catering establishment, or of the kitchen that catered for and served the residents or employees of a large institution – perhaps a residential home, hospital, workhouse, or even perhaps the canteen of a large workplace. We may never know for sure, unless anyone else happens to recognise this scene as one they also have at home (other people in the picture may have purchased copies of the same photograph), or unless you have a record of Rose’s career. It would definitely be worth your while checking the 1911 census, to see what her occupation was around the time of this intriguing photograph.


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