Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Two mysteries: Who were these people? What did they did do?

I picked up both of today's intriguing pieces of ephemera at a one-of-a-kind antiques store in York New Salem, Pennsylvania. The shop, which is only open two days per week, is like the coolest attic in the world. The shelves are filled haphazardly with boxes full of receipts, postcards, magazines, greeting cards, photos, church bulletins and much more. Every trip there is a treasure hunt for paper, sorting through stuff that miraculously wasn't thrown out decades ago.

Both of today's items are mysteries (my favorite kind of ephemera). The above postcard has had the corner with its stamp torn off. But clues remain. The back of the card has:
  • A postmark from Scranton, Pennsylvania, dated 4 p.m. on June 10, 1908.
  • It's addressed to Mrs. Ray B. Barr in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
  • The tiny print states: "Souvenir Post Card Co., New York. Printed in Germany."
  • This line is also printed on the card: "This space may be used for correspondence after March 1st, 1907."
But there is nothing on the back of the card to indicate the who, what and where of the image on the front of the card. In the upper-left corner on the front of the card, there are some tiny words in red ink. But they've faded and, more importantly, most of the words were eliminated when the stamp was torn off. Can anyone zoom in on that part of the postcard (click on the image above to make it larger) and make out those partial words?

So who are these people? My best guess is that they are child laborers awaiting a shift in a (northeastern Pennsylvania?) coal mine. The postcard is circa 1907, about three decades before any serious legislation against child labor was enacted in the United States. Why you want want to highlight your child workforce in a postcard is another question entirely.

Who were these kids? Did they know they were being photographed for a postcard? What were their lives like? How many of them died young in the mines? Sometimes, when I see children in the corners of postcards -- like the boy from this postcard whose image is magnified at right -- I wonder what their names were and what they were thinking on these days when their image was captured.

Along those lines, another postcard that I have featured previously on Papergreat contains a fascinating image of a young girl sitting on the street. Here's a close-up of that girl, from the postcard of Møntestræde in Odense, Denmark.

Today's second item, pictured below, is an undated photo. Another mystery photo, although at least we apparently have a name for this woman. At some point, the photo was pasted to a piece of envelope, which contains a postmark for 8 a.m. on February 2, 1907, in Columbia, Pennsylvania. And written in pencil is "Aunt Lucy Gilbert."

We'll likely never know any more than that about Aunt Lucy...


  1. Glad you finally visited my favorite "junk" store in the area. I've learned to take a flashlight to see in all the nooks and crannies where he has things stashed. I remember seeing the postcard with the children a few times during my visits.

    In regard to the Lucy Gilbert photograph, there is a person listed in the 1900 United States Federal Census by that name in Columbia, PA. She is shown as 48 years old, the wife of Aaron Gilbert, and mother of eight children, six that were still living at the time. In the household was John Jr., Gertrude, Walter, and Ellen, whose ages ranged from 20 to 12.

    While I can't say this is the woman in the photograph, it is a strong possibility.

  2. Good research, Blake! ... I would have said that the woman in the photo was around 60. But life was much harder back then of course -- especially when you have eight children! So it's certainly likely that a 48-year-old could "look" 60 or older, to our 2011 eyes.

  3. If the picture was taken in or around 1907 then Aunt Lucy could have been 55 (since she was 48 in 1900).

    So 60 was a good guess.

    Hooray for math.

    Cool find, good research. WTG guys.

  4. Thanks Doug. I should have clarified her age at the date of the postmark. Now if we only knew WHO the niece or nephew was!!!

  5. Those are "Breaker Boys". Most of the major coal mines of the time hired boys to work in the breaker, where they sorted coal into different grades.