The Photo History Sleuth: My Part-Time Obsession – Part 1

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As anyone who knows me already is well aware, I am a huge fan of antiques and genealogy. Recently, I’ve decided to try and put those passions to use by opening Tucked Away Antiques, an Etsy shop where I can sell some of my finds in hopes of funding more treasure hunting.

Recently I acquired a lot of vintage cabinet cards from an auction, with the only information being that they came from the estate of the late “Clarence B. Kilmer, Saratoga Springs NY”. While I purchased these in hopes of making a profit, my curiosity got the better of me, and I’ve gotten to try to trace down information about the people in the photos. I always feel a pang of sadness when I’m rooting through a box of old photos and find some with labels that I don’t have the funds to buy; I always want to reunite interested family members with their lost photos, as I hold out hope that someone may do that for me some day. I’m still on the hunt for missing leaves of my tree.

So rather than just doing all this for interest, I thought I’d walk you through the process I use to identify people in photos. It can be a lengthy one, and of course, it’s not an exact science, but if you go through things logically and systematically, it really can be like a mystery, and I think every mystery is solvable. So first things first, who was Clarence B. Kilmer?

Estate Finds: Researching the Head of the Estate

The internet make this very simple for modern day sleuthers – chances are, you can google the name of the estate and come up with enough for a starting place. If you’re really stuck, things like Ancestry.com, or your local library (yes, they still exist) can be very helpful. Census records, newspapers, land records and more can tell you a surprising amount about a person, but to start off, let’s try with google.

The first thing that pops up when searching for Mr. Kilmer, is an article on a realty site about the Saratoga Centennial. A neat little history of this gorgeous house, once belong to Kilmer, is given.

Here’s what’s relative to us:

In 1904, the property was purchased by Clarence B. Kilmer, a trial lawyer who served as President of the Saratoga County Bar Association for 19 years. He was honored in 1947 for being a 50 year member, and also served as counsel to the Saratoga Racing Association.

A civic leader, Kilmer was Director of the Chamber of Commerce, and Chairman of the City Planning Commission’s subcommittee on taxation and finance.

Clarence Kilmer was an avid sports fan. He built the Geyser Road baseball park, and was instrumental in having the Brooklyn Dodgers come to Saratoga for an exhibition game. He was President of McGregor Links Golf Club, and an officer of the Saratoga Golf Club, where he once played 81 rounds in a single day.

Kilmer resided at 722 North Broadway until his death on August 29, 1961.

This is kind of a home run. Off the bat, we know he was a lawyer for 19 years by 1904 (gives us an idea of birth date), that he lived at 722 North Broadway (can compare this to census records and get a list of family members), and that he died August 29, 1961 (can search for obituaries or death certificates, again may help with family members). As well, being such a prominent member of the community means he was almost certainly photographed for books or newspaper articles, so if we have a photo we suspect is him, we can compare it to that. Step 1 is complete! Now let’s look a little closer at the photos to see if we can spot him.

Identifying Photos: Pictures With Names

You may think that a photo with a name written on it is a home run – surely you can identify anything labeled! Well, not always. In my own history hunting I’ve come across confusing photos that use nicknames instead of a given name, which can be misleading, especially if there are multiple people in the family with the same name. For example, a man might be named John, but be called “Jack” by his friends. He may also have a cousin, Jack, who has that as a given name. Differentiating may be difficult. In my case, I have a Great Great Grandmother name Phelma who I have seen referred to (on official documents like census records and birth or marriage certificates) as Phelma, Phelina, Lena, Charlotte and Lottie. She also had a daughter named Charlotte who occassionally went by Lottie. So, while these things can be slowly sorted out when you have dates and other info to compare it to, a simple photo with a first name is not so easy. But let’s look at what we have here.

A quick glance at the photos, and style of dress shown in them, lets me know that there are several generations present (I’ll go into more detail about style of dress and how to use that to date photos in a bit). From my initial google search, I also spotted an obituary for a Clarence B. Kilmer III, so I know not to assume anyone named Clarence here is the head of the household; we’ll need to date these photos to figure that out.

I followed the obit to CBK III and learned quickly that he was the son of Clarence B. Kilmer, Jr. and Agatha Quintana Kilmer, and that he was born November 9, 1937. That date means that he won’t be featured in any of these photos, as they are mostly late Victorian, with a few that may be closer to WWI, so I can cross him out. It does let me know that his father was likely born in the early 1900s, and that could help identify him in photos. His mother’s maiden name may also be useful in identifying pictures that seem to not fit the rest.

The obit let me know his birthdate, which gives me an idea of his father’s birthdate. His mother’s maiden name may also be helpful. Older obituaries can be especially helpful as they tended to list a lot of the family, and can help link married women to their maiden names. Newer obits may prove less helpful because of today’s privacy concerns.

Now I come to a photo that I’ve found that is labeled C.B Kilmer. To determine which one he is, we need to try and date this:

c-b-kilmer

Labeled “C.B. Kilmer”

We’ll start with the other labels on it.

The photographer mark reads;

BAKER & RECORD
PHOTOGRAPHERS,
Ground Floor Gallery
448 BROADWAY
Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

So, back to google!

Google Books lead me to a copy of the Photographic Times, Vl 11, which praises the studio and mentions how they have taken the likeness of many prominent residents. This volume was published in January 1881. Further searching brought me to volume 13 of the same publication, published in January of 1883, where it is reported that the studio has dissolved. So, this photo can’t be from any date more recent than the end of 1882. We know that C.B.K. Jr. had a son in 1937, and so this is clearly too old to be him; looks like we’ve got our patriarch, Clarence B. Kilmer.

A recent obit gives the birthdate of C.B.K. III, which helps us guess the approximate birthdate of his father, C.B.K. Jr., and a quick search of the photography studio that took the photo labeled Clarence B. Kilmer has confirmed the photo can’t be more recent than 1883.

A little over-complicated? Maybe. Frankly, one look at it and I was pretty certain this was our man, but these same methods can be used to identify more complex mysteries, and I suspect we’ll come back to them.

I’ll use this photo to compare to unidentified men, and see if we can’t find more of them. But for now, let’s stick with the labeled pictures, and move on to his wife.

bessie-kilmer

Labeled “Bessie Kilmer”

I have 3 photos labeled “Mrs. C.B.K.” and one that reads “Bessie Kilmer”. The one labeled Bessie has a date printed on it, 1890. I found this a little odd as the woman in this photo is older than in the other ones, and yet she is not described as “Mrs. C.B.K.”. It is common to find records, be it photos or otherwise, of married women that disregard not only their maiden name, but their first name as well; one of my distant relatives was recorded on her death certificate as “Mrs. Dix”! This leads me to suspect one of the following;

  1. Bessie Kilmer is the woman’s maiden name. Given the date of the photo this would likely mean she is the sister of C.B.K., though she could also be a cousin (less likely, I’ve already come across some labeled “Aunt So-and-so”, I would expect “cousin” to be added here).
  2. This is Mrs. C.B.K., but the photo was taken after the death of her husband, and so whoever labeled it found it more appropriate to record her actual name.
  3. This is Mrs. C.B.K., but the photo belonged to a more distant relative, who wanted the actual name recorded.

Personally, I’m strongly leaning towards option 1, but for the sake of exploration, let’s dig a little deeper.

mrscbk

Labeled “Mrs. C.B.K.”

One of the Mrs. C.B.K. photos is taken by the same company, Baker & Record, listed previously; it can’t be more recent than 1882. The woman in the photo looks quite young, and while I’d advise against guessing ages to identify pictures (they dressed and aged very differently back then, it can be misleading), I’m confident in saying she is under 40, could easily be anywhere from age 20-35. This would mean she was born sometime after 1847, likely closer to 1860.

Now here is where it’s important to go back to records, and not rely on a photo for information like marriage dates; you may want to assume that this photo was taken when she was already Mrs. C.B.K., but it could just as easily have been labeled after her marriage, but taken before then. Comparing the Mr. & Mrs. C.B.K. photos by the same photography company, it’s not difficult to see that the lady looks considerably younger than the gentleman; she could have married a much older man, or, this may have been taken early in the company’s existence. So let’s go back to google to try and identify when the company was first started.

After about half an hour of searching I was unable to find a date of incorporation (this is certainly something that could be located with more effort, but it’s not a necessity, so I’m going to leave it for now). I did, however, find many things dated to 1871, and nothing attributed to them from an earlier date. So, let’s estimate that the company existed from 1871-1882, not an unreasonable guess since other searching has confirmed that the men had other studios and other partners.

Ok, so this is a lot. I know. And again, most of this, in this particular case, could be guessed by anyone with some experience with old photos and fashion, but I want to use this as a sort of “case study” for how to start going about a process like this. So, let’s recap what we’ve learned:

  • We started with a lot of photos that were said to be from the estate of “Clarence B. Kilmer, Saratoga Springs NY”
  • A Google search of the name lead me to a Saratoga Realty site that featured the late man’s residence, and told me that he was a lawyer residing at 722 North Broadway, Saratoga N.Y., and that he died in August of 1961
  • Further searching found an obituary that confirmed that there was also a C.B.K. Jr., and that he was born in 1937 and died in 2008; this means he won’t be in any of the pictures. From the obit I also learned that “he was the son of the late Clarence B. Kilmer, Jr. and Agatha Quintana Kilmer.” Sounds like that was the C.B.K. who died in 1961 – need to find his year of birth.
  • Google yields yet another obit, for the above mentioned C.B.K. Jr. It confirms that he was born March 5, 1875 and died August 29, 1961. It also tells us that he was the son of “the late Clarence B. and Bessie Kilmer”.
  • I have a photo labeled Clarence B. Kilmer, and after researching the photography studio know that it must have been taken prior to 1882; since the photo is of an adult, we know that it cannot be C.B.K. Jr, and so can assume it is his father.
  • The photo I have from 1890, labeled “Bessie Kilmer”, I originally thought could be a sister. However, after finding C.B.K. Jr.’s obit, I now believe it to be his mother, the wife of the original C.B.K.

Other photos of Mrs. C.B.K. remain, and of course the question is which one is she? In my next blog post, I’ll discuss identifying the dates of photos by the photographic method, as well as the fashion; that should help us to confirm who exactly the woman is. Once we have a few people absolutely identified, we can start the more complex process of comparing unlabeled photos for further identification.

Hope that rather lengthy post proves helpful! More to come.

-E.