Mystery photo #7: The hidden boy

Today’s post is not only about a new mystery photo I just discovered. It’s also a reminder to double-check anything possibly related to family history before throwing it out. You never know what might be hiding within unless you check thoroughly.

From about the mid 1970s to the late 1980s, my father and grandparents accumulated a number of faux vintage photos and frames. I don’t know whether they were fans of the style or whether that’s just the way that the stores they frequented marketed their frames. In any case, they accumulated piles of these that I later inherited and am still going through.

What I mean by ‘faux vintage’ are generally stained and sometimes artificially distressed oak frames with matted black-and-white or sepia-toned prints behind glass. And to add a layer of realism, my grandmother and father were both heavy smokers for periods of their lives, so the glass and frames were coated with a nicotine patina that made them look like they had been hanging in an old house for decades. But when you turn over these faux vintage frames, their modernity becomes a little more apparent. Relatively clean cardboard is held in place by shiny staples that were hastily and asymmetrically placed during mass production. Remove the cardboard and you find that the antique print is just a modern print on thin, glossy paper.

So when I was doing a bit of organizing yesterday, I found something similar to this—not an oak frame, but a double oval metal frame. Still, when I took it to the garage to pry up the tabs holding in the cardboard backing, I fully expected to find a modern faux-vintage pair of photos in the frames. I was so confident that I didn’t pay attention to hints of a much greater age, like thick cardboard with multiple overlapping water stains.

I removed the cardboard backing and then the matting of the left oval and was surprised to see a trimmed photo postcard print hiding behind the first set of matting I removed and the matting of the photo I could see through the glass.

I turned the photo postcard over and saw what looks to be a 1½- to 3-year-old boy standing in a field of grass in front of some out-of-focus farm equipment. And in front of that cart or farm equipment is half of a seated man, but unfortunately very out of focus. The boy is wearing a dress, thick socks, black shoes, and a necklace with a locket.

I didn’t immediately recognize the boy, and was curious what might be hiding behind the matted photo in the right-hand side of this double oval frame. I carefully took off the backing cardboard on the other side, and just like on the left side, there was a extra set of matting hiding under the cardboard. And when I lifted that out there was another trimmed photo postcard hiding behind that.

I turned this other photo postcard over and saw what looks to be a 1- to 2-year-old child sitting in an upright baby stroller. S/he is also wearing a light-colored dress and light-colored leggings. This photo postcard image was printed with a crude oval crop, as if it were specifically printed to be displayed in this frame.

These two photos appear to be of the same boy, just taken a few months or more apart. They were originally displayed in this frame or another fame of identical dimensions, but at some point in the past, they were hidden away behind the two mass-produced prints that were on display in the frame set when I inherited it.

Let’s turn to those two prints. They are a set of prints of a young girl holding a bow and an arrow. In one image, she’s awake and looking directly at the camera:

In the other photo, the girl is asleep (the photo and mat on this side are in worse shape as the glass on this side was lost at some point in the past):

Both photos are marked “Copyright 1897 by M.B. Parkinson” on the face of the prints, and the backs of these photos have the details of the identity of these mass-produced photos:

The little girl in the photos is 4-year-old Josephine Anderson and she was photographed by Morris Burke Parkinson (1847–1926) in 1897. The Taber-Prang Art Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, mass distributed prints of the photo. The photo was so widely distributed and common that it became cliché. On page 271 of the April 15, 1910, edition of The Bookseller, Newsdealer and Stationer, it was reported that,

The Tabor-Prang Art Co. has sold more than one million, twenty-five thousand copies of the pictures, “Cupid Awake” and “Cupid Asleep,” an almost unheard of record for a picture. It is made in various sizes and styles, framed and unframed, to be retailed at prices to suit anyboby’s purse.

In fact, you can see two versions of this set of photos available for sale on page 410 of the 1910 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog (on a page amusingly entitled “Most popular high class pictures”), and another version on page 411. There aren’t a lot of catalogs yet available online for 1897–1905, but the earliest mention I’ve been able to find of the catalog sale of these photos is from 1904. So they were definitely being sold then, but they may have been available as early as 1897 (the Taber-Prang Art Company also happens to have been founded in 1897).

So who is the mystery child in the photo postcard images, when do the photos date to, and why were these precious, personal photos hidden behind cliché mass-produced photos?

I have a few hypotheses:

  1. The boy is Ray Z. Shearer (1895–1937)
  2. The boy is Vernon C. Black (1916–1993)
  3. The boy is someone else

Hypothesis 1: The boy in the photos is Ray Z. Shearer

I inherited these photos from my father, who almost certainly inherited them from his parents. My grandmother, Dorothy Ruth (McMurry) Black was quite organized with her photos. She cherished her photos and labeled them and mounted them in photo albums. Her family was also fairly well-off, so photos from her side of the family tend to be high-quality photos and prints. To the best of my knowledge, she also didn’t have strained relationships in her family that would lead her or her parents to ‘erase’ the memory of someone by hiding their photos. My grandfather Vernon C. Black was the opposite on most of these things. While he clearly cherished photos and letters from his past later in life, photos and letters from his early years seem to have survived only because his mother, Catalina (Edel) Black, held onto them. When she died in 1978, he inherited all of these items and kept them in unorganized piles. Nothing was labeled by his mother or by Vernon. Finally, Vernon’s father (Ray Z. Shearer) abandoned the family when Vernon was only 4 years old. Vernon seemed to have had a love-hate relationship with his father, to the point where he’d often deny that Ray was his father. Vernon stopped using Ray’s last name and used the last name of his mother’s new husband (Frank Black) for the rest of his life (leading to issues establishing his legal identity later in life). Despite this, I’ve discovered that Vernon (and later, his mother), did hold onto a few memories of Ray (for instance, this letter that Ray sent to Vernon in 1932).

In light of the above, I thought that the boy in the hidden photos might just be Ray Shearer as a child. Ray was born on January 6, 1895, so these photos would have been taken in 1897–1899, perhaps shortly before the “Cupid” photos were available. Ray may have had his childhood photos in the home he shared with Catalina (“Lena”) after they married on March 27, 1915. Ray and Lena would have had few possessions, as they eloped against the wishes of Lena’s father and had to move around quite a bit in search of work for Ray. In fact, my grandfather told me several times how he was born in the back of a hotel room. When Ray left in late 1920/early 1921, it was after he was given an ultimatum by Lena—quit drinking and fooling around or never come home again. He never came home again. Lena may have been left with what few items he had, and I’m still trying to identify what some of those may have been. If these photos were Ray’s, that would give her motive to put these out of sight without throwing them away (from what I’ve been able to gather, she believed in keeping pretty much everything (for instance, I have her utility bills). She may have been averse to throwing away a perfectly good frame pair, or to throwing away a rare photo of her children’s birth father.

Alternately, Ray and Lena may have swapped out his childhood photos for the Cupid Awake/Cupid Asleep pair of photos while they were still together. Perhaps she received the Cupid photos as a gift and wanted to frame them, so she reused a frame they already had. Or perhaps Ray just got tired of seeing his baby photos up and Lena replaced them with something that would have been inspirational to a romantically driven young couple who were looking forward to having children together.

Hypothesis 2: The boy in the photos is Vernon C. Black

While Ray and Lena were married, money was tight and they needed to keep their possessions to a minimum as they travelled from town to town seeking jobs for Ray. Even still, when their first child (Vernon) was born in the back of a hotel, Lena might have wanted at least a symbol of stability and normalcy in the itinerant life that she fell into by choosing to marry Ray against her parents’ wishes. A framed photo of their first-born child might have provided just that sort of reassurance. But if these were photos of Vernon, then why were they tucked away behind the Cupid photos? Perhaps this was the action of an embarrassed teenage Vernon?

Hypothesis 3: The boy in the photo is someone else

If the boy in the photos is not Ray Shearer or his son Vernon Black, then who might it be? Some candidates are Vernon’s younger brother Roy D. Edel (1919–1989), Vernon’s younger half-brother George Black (1927–2018), Vernon’s paternal half-uncle Vernon T. Stokes (1901–1988), or Vernon’s other paternal half-uncle Daniel L. Stokes (1917–1995). Alternately, I could be completely wrong about this being from Vernon’s side of the family and this could be from Dorothy (McMurry) Black’s family. I feel fairly confident that that’s not the case, but I can’t rule it out. Even in that case, this boy looks like no one in Dorothy’s family, and the background looks less like the Pacific Northwest of her childhood and more like the Kansas plains of Vernon’s childhood.

Dating the photographic print

In another post that involved dating a photo postcard, I determined that the “AZO” markings around the area for the stamp indicated that the postcard was printed on a specific type of paper—Kodak Professional AZO Paper, which was made between 1904 and 2005. The design of the stamp box changed over time (source 1source 2):

1904–19184 triangles, one in each corner, all pointing up
1907–19094 diamonds, one in each corner
1918–19302 triangles pointing up and 2 triangles pointing down
1922–1926Empty corners
1926–1940s4 squares, one in each corner

The stamp box on the photo postcard of the younger boy has four triangles, all pointing up, so this dates that photo postcard to 1904-1918. The boy is only about a year older in the other print, so would date to essentially the same time period, assuming these are photos of the same child.

Dating the photographic negative

Prints can be made from much older photographic negatives, so we need to look for evidence that the negative substantially predates the print made from that negative.

That said, these photos don’t give us much to work with. We can’t date his clothes by their fashion, as he appears to be wearing a rather timeless and practical piece of handmade clothing. Even if we could date the fashion to a specific date, we can reasonably expect that the child might be wearing hand-me-down clothes in these photos.

The stroller in the shot of the younger child appears to be similar to what was advertised on page 566 of the 1910 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog as a “Collapsible Go-Cart.” Similar problems exist for dating the stroller—we have no expectation that the parents bought the latest fashion in strollers for their child, and it’s quite possibly a second-hand or hand-me-down stroller. In any case, so little of the stroller is pictured (and a portion of that is out of focus) that I can’t determine what model of stroller it is.

In the background of the photo of the older child is a wagon or a farm vehicle to the right of the child and perhaps a building to the left of the child, but unfortunately the aperture used was so large that everything outside of a very narrow focal plane is out of focus.

So in short, I can find nothing to tightly date when the photo was taken, so we’ll have to use the date of the photo postcard as a proxy for the date of the image itself.

Comparing to identified photos

Finally, let’s look at the faces in the photos and compare them to identified photos.

face of the older boy in the left frame
face of the younger boy in the right frame
Ray Shearer as a young child
Vernon C. Black (left) and his half-uncle Daniel L. Stokes (right)
Roy D. Edel, Vernon Black’s younger brother

To my eye, the mystery child isn’t clearly any of these children, but I don’t have many photos of these people when they were 1–4 years old. I have one additional as-yet-unscanned domed glass print of Vernon from almost the same age as the younger mystery child, but to my eye it doesn’t look like the mystery child.

So, dear reader, I ask you for help. Do you recognize this child? Do you have additional photos of any of the Shearers, Edels, Blacks, or Stokes as young children that I could scan and compare to the mystery child? Do you see dating hints or other contextual hints in the photo that I missed? Please let me know in the comments below if you do, or if you think you might be able to help in any way.

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