Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Economics of Family Photographs

My grandfather with friends c. 1934
A chance conversation with someone gave me some unexpected insight into my own family.

A genealogy friend, "L", was very excited, because a distant cousin had recently sent her a photograph of her grandmother when she was a babe in arms, being held by her own mother, L's great-grandmother.  L had never seen the photo before and didn't believe anyone in her direct branch of the family had a copy.  The photo was sent by a descendant of the great-grandmother's brother, who apparently took the photo himself.  The photo was a one-off snapshot, as opposed to a cabinet card or another type that was done in a studio by a professional photographer.  It is probably the only copy of the photo that exists.  While talking about the photo, L commented that her family hadn't passed down many photos, because they were poor and hadn't been able to afford photographs.

Suddenly a light bulb went on over my head, and I think I now understand the great disparity in the number of photographs between my grandmother's and my grandfather's sides of the family.  When my grandmother, Bubbie, had a stroke and it was clear she would not be able to live by herself again, I was the first person who was able to spend time at her apartment and begin to pack everything up in preparation for moving everything out.  Among the items were four large boxes of photographs, which I had looked at with Bubbie the year before, when she had finally(!) allowed me to label everything.  I remembered noticing at that time that the vast majority of the photos were from Bubbie's family; only about a dozen or so were from my grandfather's, Zadie's, side.

I asked Bubbie at the time why there were so few photographs of Zadie's family, and she said she had no idea.  Thinking over it now, though, Bubbie's family was assimilated and comfortably middle class, while Zadie's family was very Orthodox, very traditional, and much poorer.  It makes sense that they would not have had as much discretionary money to spend on things such as photographs.  That reason had never occurred to me before my conversation with L.  I guess I had my blinders on.  Now that I have thought of it, those few photographs from Zadie's family have become much more precious.

While you are researching your own family, listen to stories about other people's families.  Maybe something they say will help you understand your own family better.


  1. A fascinating insight that I'm going to mull over when I look at the photos I've been lucky enough to inherit. Thanks for sharing.

  2. You are welcome. I'm surprised I hadn't thought of it before, but I'm glad I finally did.


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