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The friends of lost photos

Waltham library joins growing community of history buffs using Internet to find proper home for 'orphan' snapshots

The handwritten note accompanied the above photo when it was mailed to the Waltham Public Library, where it joined a small collection of images that have been posted on the library’s website in the hope that someone will be able to recognize their subjects.
The handwritten note accompanied the above photo when it was mailed to the Waltham Public Library, where it joined a small collection of images that have been posted on the library’s website in the hope that someone will be able to recognize their subjects.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephanie V. Siek
Globe Staff / March 20, 2008

His picture arrived in the mail at the Waltham Public Library in a small manila envelope. The well-dressed stranger wore a dark pinstriped suit - late-19th-century vintage. His hair was parted sharply at the left temple, his starched collar crisp and white.

His photo carried the trademark of a Waltham studio, called Brown, L.C. on Main Street, which hasn't existed for more than 100 years.

"Hello," the handwritten note accompanying the picture said. "Don't ask me how I wound up in Sasser, Georgia! Would you please put me on display in your library so my family can find me? Thanks! Sincerely, A Lost Soul."

What was once a treasured image of a brother, husband or son is now an orphaned photo. But though this image might be a "Lost Soul," it is by no means alone. The Internet has created a thriving community of people who have found a calling in rescuing the thousands of these orphaned photos that surface in dusty attics or estate sales, and trying to reunite them with family or friends or anyone who could identify them.

And now Waltham's library has joined that community, drawn in by the arrival of the "Lost Soul" photo in January. Library workers have posted the image and several other unidentified pictures from its files on the library's website, at waltham.lib.ma.us/blog/main, and in a display case outside its Waltham Room.

For research librarian Jan Zwicker, who oversees the library's local history collection, identifying orphan photos has a practical purpose. The Waltham Public Library owns more than 5,000 historical photos, in subjects that include architecture and local social clubs, and Zwicker said they are among the library's most sought-after resources.

The "Lost Soul" is one of just five photos that doesn't have a name or history attached.

"You never know," Zwicker said. "You might identify it, then it's there for somebody who needs it. It's a little bit of a mystery thing."

The woman who sent the "Lost Soul" to Waltham is a frequent visitor to the land of orphaned photos.

Patricia Rock has posted hundreds of them on AncientFaces.com and on DeadFred.com, two websites dedicated to reuniting old photos with the families of their original owners. They are just two of many built around a subculture of amateur genealogists, antique hounds, and others who try to find homes for piles of old pictures that are clearly someone's relatives - just not theirs. It's a subculture that might not exist if the Internet hadn't given them access to millions of eyeballs, vast amounts of digital storage space, and search engines that have a knack for serendipity.

Rock lives in Albany, Ga., and found the photo in December at an antique shop in nearby Sasser.

"The guy just had a collection of about 30 photos," Rock said. "Some of them were fairly easy to see the people in them, some were not in very good condition. The ones that were in good condition that had some kind of information on them were the ones that I bought."

Now she's hoping someone in Waltham might be kin to the man - or at least know something about him.

Was Lost Soul a Waltham resident or a visitor? A student at one of the nearby colleges? A businessman? Are his descendants still living in Waltham? Are they even alive?

Another one of Rock's orphaned photos, this one depicting a 19th-century girl, included a name and the name of the man she eventually married. Rock used the information to track down their grandson, an 80-year-old doctor living in Chicopee. Soon afterward, the doctor contacted her with the reaction that she always hopes for. "He was absolutely amazed. She had died giving birth to his father, and they only had one photo of her, taken when she was older. . . . He sent me a paperweight this Christmas."

The orphaned photo movement is fueled by moments like that one, moments that heal formerly broken links in a family's history.

Joe Bott started DeadFred.com 10 years ago, after decades of collecting old photos he found in thrift stores and antique shops. He decided to start posting them on the Web in hopes of connecting them with their families. The site, which is based in Springdale, Ark., had more than 62 million hits last year, and has 1,278 reunions to its credit. More than 76,000 photos, daguerreotypes, tintypes, and yearbook photos from around the world are posted there. Bott named the site in honor of Frederick III of Prussia, who reigned during the time Bott's great-great-grandfather was alive.

As he conducted research on his own family history, he sensed something missing. There was no shortage of census records, marriage certificates, ship manifests, and other pieces of documentation online, but if you wanted to see what your ancestors looked like, what types of clothes they wore, what their surroundings looked like, you were on your own, he said.

"People like to see photos. A lot of people are visualists. A lot of people are doing genealogy, and there was an aspect of genealogy that wasn't tapped. Here, you can look and find a face from 100 years ago that's related to you."

Bott and the other four volunteers running the site commonly get tearful phone calls and emotional e-mails from people who find meaningful photos - people who were separated from other branches of a family after a tragedy, or find replacements for photos long ago lost in fire, flood, or a move. Sometimes the reunions are literal: He has dozens of stories about people who e-mail about a particular photo independently of each other, and through Bott find out that they're related.

Whether the Waltham library will be that lucky is uncertain.

The best clue to Lost Soul's identity is the name and address of the photo studio, which appears below the picture. Zwicker said that L.C. Brown was in business on Main Street between 1893 and 1895, which provides a range of dates for the photo but not much else.

The library's other four mystery photos have been in its archives for years; Zwicker doesn't know exactly how long. The black-and-white images date to the late-19th to early-20th centuries. One shows a white-haired gentleman wearing a long, fur-trimmed coat and presenting a steadfast, no-nonsense stare into the camera. Writing on the photo indicates that it was taken at the studio of a well-known Boston photographer, Elmer Chickering, in 1904. Another shows a middle-age man wearing the clothes of a priest or minister, his eyes peering out through a pair of pince-nez. Zwicker said the man does not match any of the ministers whose photos are already in the library's collection.

The last two orphans are in the display case.

One shows a large crowd of people, mostly men, posing on the steps of a large stone building - too large to be anything in Waltham - at some point in the late-19th century. The subjects hide a cornerstone on which parts of two words can be seen - "vangel" and "argaret." The photographer was a mysterious someone named Adolphe Bean, who isn't listed in any records of known photographers of the time.

The other photo depicts a residential street scene: A streetcar heads away from the camera after passing a bend in the road, and a steeple pokes above the trees in the background. Zwicker said one library patron told her it might have been taken in Newton.

The grouping might seem rather mundane to some - no groundbreaking, paradigm-shifting events are shown, the subjects don't appear to be famous. But Zwicker said that doesn't make any of them less important, especially to the people who might see something familiar in them while heading over to the checkout desk.

"Maybe that minister is the one who married their grandparents," Zwicker said. "It's an issue of completeness."

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at ssiek@globe.com.

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