Solving Mysteries in Historic Photos
One of many wonderful things GVSHP does is accept donations of old photos for our historic image archive, so we can share them with the world. Old photos of course can be wonderful to view, and provide valuable information about historic sites, events, or people, as well as charting how things have changed over time. Our historic image archive contains several hundred historic images, most of them donated.
One of the challenges of accepting such images, however, is that they are often unlabeled and undated, leaving the location and time of the image unknown. That can lead to both fun and frustration. As an example, we recently accepted a donation of over five hundred incredible photographs from East Village artist and longtime GVSHP supporter Carole Teller. While some had dates or locations identified, most did not. We at GVSHP went through the painstaking process over the next several months of identifying the locations and at least approximating the dates of all of these; we’ve succeeded at doing so with about 85% of them, and now the first one hundred of them are available online for view (you’ll see a few remain unidentified in terms of locations and/or dates; any information or clues from the public are welcome).
But we also recently solved a more than century and a half old mystery surrounding one of our images from an earlier collection which seemed worth sharing, and thought we would pair it with a plea for help with solving another.
The picture above was donated to GVSHP in 1996 by the New York Bound Bookstore. It’s part of an incredible collection of images of the Village and environs, as well as other parts of New York, from the 20th century back through the 19th century and earlier. The collection, in addition to being a delight, is incredibly broad in its geographic and chronological range.
Which is why this image was such a mystery to us. We knew it was quite old, and assumed it was New York, but beyond that we couldn’t really say much, and added it to the image archive with time and location unspecified.
But as is often the case with these images, over time, we noticed some information which provided us with important clues.
Two businesses are identified on the building; one, a photographer which takes up the two upper floors, and the other, a dry goods salesman on the ground floor. The name of the photographer is somewhat obscured, but it appears to be “Wm. (William) G. Grotecross” or “Grotegross.” We were unable to find anything about either name. However, upon closer examination, the dry goods salesman’s name seems to be “John Heath.” Bingo.
Through some research we were able to find that indeed in 1859 a John Heath had established a Dry Goods store at 15 Carmine Street and, lo and behold, this building had a big number 15 painted on it. To further substantiate the connection, we did some research on the flag flying on the building on the left. While the full flag is cut off and therefore we cannot see how many stars are on it, the three rows we do see all contain seven stars.
It turns out the American flag only had at least three rows all containing exactly seven stars just twice in its history — from July 1846 to July 1847, when there were 28 states (and stars), after Texas joined the Union but before Iowa did, and from July 1863 to July 1865, when there were 35 states and stars after West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War to form its own state and rejoin the Union, but before Nevada joined.
However, in the flag in our image you can see that the third row of stars aligns with the bottom of the sixth of the flag’s seven red stripes. This is the giveaway that this is an 1864-1865 flag, because in the 1846-1847 flag, the sixth red stripe more or less bisects the third row of seven stars, which is not the case here, and only the case on the 1864-1865 flag.
Now of course they could have been flying an old flag, but this tells us this image is likely from the mid-1860s, which aligns nicely with the documentation of a John Heath Dry Goods Store existing at 15 Carmine Street in 1859.
Speaking of aligning, another good clue is that unlike many intersections in the Village, Bleecker and Carmine Street (where 15 Carmine Street would have been located) is a right-angled, perpendicular intersection, which the corner the building in the image sits on clearly is as well. Combine that with the fact that both Carmine and Bleecker had horsecar lines on them (which the tracks in the image show both streets do), and we felt comfortable calling this building as “likely” 15 Carmine Street, and the date of the photograph “circa” mid-1860s.
So that may solve that mystery, but many others remain within the collection.
For example, the picture above is of an unidentified man signing autographs, seemingly in a park, quite possibly Washington Square (the image come from a collection of photographs donated to GVSHP by Nat Kaufman, which are largely of the Washington Square area). The donor believed it dated to about 1950, which seems consistent with the style of dress of those pictured. But who this autograph-signer is has remained a mystery, and frankly, eaten at me a bit.
Curiously, the man looks quite a bit like American humorist Will Rogers. But Rogers died in 1935, and even if the picture is misdated, the woman pictured clearly could not be from 1935 or earlier.
So since we have hit a wall with this one, we’re putting out a call. If anyone can identify, or even has a guess or clue as to who our mysterious autogrpah signer is, please let us know!