Photos as History

Portraits and Snapshots

Garrison, William E, 1891 editedGarrison, William E, Wilkin Co

While a family portrait gives us the image of what an ancestor actually looked like, a snapshot of that same person tells us more about their life. It helps tell the story of who we are and where we came from. Just as genealogy and family history are equally important. We want the documents to prove who we are, but we need the family stories to give our history depth.   The above photographs are of my great grandfather, William E. Garrison. This portrait was taken on his wedding day in 1891 and the snapshot of him working on his farm in Wilkin County, Minnesota was taken about 1925.


Exciting possibilities!

Nygaard brothers and sistersThrough research, working on and help from Facebook, I was able to find long-lost cousins and together we were able to piece together the families of my great grandfather’s brothers and sisters.  This photo is of all his siblings who survived to adulthood.  Two others died as infants and one died as a young man.  The photo shows the siblings on the top row with their spouses below them.  Four of them emigrated to the United States and three of them stayed in Norway.


Sonnets are full of love

Sonnets are full of love, by Christina Rossetti

Flath, Deborah 1952 and mother Rosella Nygaard

To her whose heart is my heart’s quiet home,

To my first Love, my Mother, on whose knee

I learnt love-lore that is not troublesome;

Whose service is my special dignity,

And she my loadstar while I go and come

And so because you love me, and because

I love you, Mother, I have woven a wreath

Of rhymes wherewith to crown your honored name:

In you not fourscore years can dim the flame

Of love, whose blessed glow transcends the laws

Of time and change and mortal life and death.


Great grandma wore a black wedding dress! What’s with that?


With the recent announcement that our youngest child and only daughter is getting married, my thoughts returned once again to some of the old wedding photographs I have seen of my ancestors.

There are two photographs of particular interest. One is from my great-grandparents who emigrated separately from Norway and married in America. The other is of my great-grandfather’s brother and bride who stayed in their homeland.  The new American bride wore white and the Norwegian bride wore black.  The Norwegian wedding took place in 1902; the American wedding in 1905. Was it then just a new trend in the new country?   Was it a difference in culture? Was it a socioeconomic difference?

Before 1840 in the Western world, brides often wore dresses that reflected their social standing and the current trends. A color was often a personal preference; the wealthier the family, the richer the fabrics and the richer the colors. Black was common, especially in the Scandinavian countries.  Black was practical, it could be worn often and would not show the dirt and stains. And at that time, white was considered very conservative and often a color for mourning. Interesting, we see the reverse of that today.

However, with preparations taking place in 1840 for the wedding of English Queen Victoria and her German cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, the wedding gown traditions in the Western world were about to change. You see the Queen had a bit of cherished white lace that she wanted to have as part of her wedding dress; and it was a white silk dress that would be chosen to bring out the richness of the fabric. As later seen around the world as the official wedding portrait was published, Queen Victoria was married in a long white, lacy, frilly wedding gown – and a new trend was begun.

This royal wedding took place about the time that millions of emigrants were leaving the “old country” and coming to America.  As they moved across the expanding country, they wanted desperately to fit in. They each wanted to become an “American”.  I remember Grandma saying, “Speak English! We are Americans!”

Along with learning a new language, clothing was another important way of visually fitting in. The new immigrants were often made fun of for wearing “old fashioned”, dark, heavy, wool clothing. They knew that adopting the new fashion trends would help them to assimilate.  With that in mind and because a family wedding had always been a time to pull out all the stops, many chose this celebration to move from homespun to white and Victorian.  Make a fashion statement. Show their new communities just how “American” they were. And better yet, have a formal portrait taken to send back to the “old country” to show how modern and prosperous they were in America.


Women’s History Month: Five Generations of Mothers and Daughters.

five-generations-of-mothers-and-daughters-copy1How many generations of women have affected your life? This photo includes my great-grandmother Amelia Charlotta Uppfalt, my grandmother Esther Rose Garrison, my mother Rosella Irene Nygaard, and then there’s me, Deborah Leigh Flath, and my daughter, Anna-Kjersten.


Don’t always assume that a child in a dress is a girl!

Nygaard, Robert 1909 crop with border copyUntil the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many boys wore dresses.  Other than the fact that it was easier to let the hems down on dresses, allowing the children to wear the garment longer, a main reason was for toilet training because the fastenings on the clothing worn by men was very complicated. Somewhere between the age of about four and seven years of age, boys celebrated what was called “breeching”.  A time when they went from wearing dresses or gowns to breeches or trousers. Often this also signaled a time when they were given more family work responsibilities.