I recently bought a stack of old cabinet cards, cartes de visites, and tintypes. This particular set seems to have been someone's personal family album, as many of them have similar handwritten notes and identifiers on the back, such as "my great aunt," etc. One of the things I love about collecting old photographs is that many of them have personal inscriptions on the back. Sometimes these notes are factual and identify the person in the image; other times, they are love notes for the photograph's intended viewer; and occasionally, they're funny or random.
Two cabinet cards struck me out of this batch, the first because it is sad and the second because it is funny. On the back of the first one, of "Aunt Ella Harvard," it is written that she "Died at sea, wife of Capt. John Harvard." How amazing that all these years later I am holding an image of a woman I've never met, and someone from her family recorded details of her death on the back, forever attached to her likeness. I can only imagine the life she lived, and it is a strange feeling to know this detail about her passing- it's as if it makes the photo more intimate.
The second Cabinet Card is of a dapper looking man named Will Brown. In pencil, the inscription reads "Will Brown, Aunt Clara Brown's husband. 'Left her for some other woman!'" I couldn't help but laugh when I saw this inscription. Not that the act of leaving someone for another woman is funny- but there was something comical to me that whoever had written this chose to use quotations, as if this was a phrase they had heard their aunt say many, many times.
In some ways, I tend to view the people in these images as if they existed a million years ago in some other world, but little inscriptions like this remind me that these are just people, and these are just photos of them that they would have used just as we use photos now.