Above: On a brilliant summer day a baby is posed on a flower box atop a tree stump. It’s an idyllic scene from an 1890s photo taken in Noblesville, Indiana. But someone other than the photographer is watching. Below: The enlarged left edge of the photo. A woman, perhaps the child’s mother or nanny watches from behind a screen door.
One hundred and twenty years ago a small town photographer archived his favorite photographs in the form of glass negatives carefully arranged in a wooden crate. The photographs detailed life in Noblesville, Indiana in the 1890s in the very neighborhood where I set my novel, Noblesville. Within some of these images are hidden detail.
Once I digitized the old photographs, I dramatically enlarged the images on my computer and went scrolling around the edges and background for detail that gets lost when looking at the entire image. Yeah, okay. I’m a history nerd. I accept that. But the results of all that poking around can make you smile and even reveal little known truths about American history. In one Indiana town, this single photographer captured, and at times blundered into a broad series of unintended images and head scratching mysteries.
Above: The Tescher family, Julia & George at the top left, their children below and Julia’s sisters to the right, relax on their Noblesville, Indiana porch in the 1890s. But what year exactly was this photo taken? A historic fashion expert might be able to narrow it down. But look more deeply at the edges and background and you can date the image to the exact year. Below: In the window above and to the right of Julia’s sisters you find the American and Cuban flags clearly displayed. In 1898 the media fanned the flames of war with Spain, based largely on false information manufactured to sell newspapers. The compelling stories seized the imagination of the public and drove America to war. The war was essentially about Cuban independence from their Spanish rulers and so the American public felt a kinship with the Cuban people and flew the Cuban flag beside the stars and stripes during the war.
The collection of photographs were taken by George Tescher, pictured above. At times his darkroom skills were sloppy, and no more than in the photo below. I suspect he took two photos this day as they are taken in the same back yard and have the same poor processing; one is of a woman dressed in an elaborate costume (not shown), and another of the man below costumed in some comic manner that doesn’t quite fit the era.
Below: A costumed man poses before a little shed marked “Laboratory,” a clothes line pole cutting a 45 angle behind him,
Below, an enlargement of the same image at the man’s hip, showing a charm or key ring of some sort. It’s what we today call a swastika. But this is in the Hoosier heartland, a solid 40 years before the rise of Germany’s Nazi party.
The symbol is in fact ancient and sacred in Hinduism and Buddhism, dating back to the 2nd century. It’s very possible that the man in the photo thought it an exotic symbol and knew it as a “Gammadion cross,” meaning 4 Greek gamma letters connected to each other. The word “swastika” comes from ancient Sanskrit and means “lucky or auspicious object.” If you visit Indiana’s famed West Baden Springs Hotel, an early 20th Century resort for the wealthy, you’ll find this symbol cast into metal work in various locations.
Below: In-home funerals were the norm in much of Victorian-era America and it was common to take photos, even of the corpse in the coffin. This funeral shot shows a coffin heavily laden with flowers and tributes, even a photograph of the deceased. The patriotic tone of the tributes suggest this is a war vet’s service. Note the gas light fixture above. In my novel Noblesville I included the true story of a Civil War vet’s tragic death in 1893 Noblesville and the long-gone traditions of sitting up all night with his corpse, preparing and dressing it, and the funeral held in his family’s home.
An enlarged view of the far right of the image shows a man, appearing to be standing on the front porch of the house (note the decorative wooden porch bracket behind him) inadvertently photo bombing this delicate moment.
Below: In the front yard of his neighbor’s house, George Tescher took a picture of a woman with a bicycle. Teacher’s home is in the background.
And an enlarged image of the window behind the woman shows a small child photo bombing from behind the glass.
It takes three images to reveal this last little hidden gem. George Tescher loved to record images of his children playing, often costumed and posed in tableau. In the photo below, George Jr. takes his sister Edith’s pulse, pocket watch in his other hand as they play doctor in the family’s living room.
In the next, blurred photo, it’s hard to tell what George Jr. and Edith are doing, exactly – part of the blur is her dress and the upper portion looks like it could be a fan. Examine the room closely and see if you can find the hidden connection between these two photos of the children playing.
Below: An enlarged look at the framed print on the wall behind them in the 2nd image shows it’s the 1st photo of them playing doctor. I don’t think the light blur is poor development, but a reflection of window light from another wall. To see more images of the Tescher children playing in the 1890s, check out this earlier post: The Secret Lives Of Children In The 1890s, Part 2, or dig deeper through the posts and find the original “The Secret Lives Of Children” post.