• Gregory Winters

Why Do People Pursue Genealogy?

I never started out to get into genealogy directly. Rather, I inherited a number of old photos and artifacts from some surviving relatives since I was the one in the family who didn't want to see these things discarded.




Of interest in this story were two old and fragile portraits of my great-grandparents, Ira James and Amanda Mae Simms Wayt (above). I was instantly enthralled with the portraits. Amanda's was housed in a beautiful 19th century oval frame made of tiger stripe maple and thin concaved glass. The portrait itself was stretched over a mount of thin cardboard, also concaved.


Ira's portrait was even more stunning, as I was to also learn later. His was mounted on a square of old wood, but the material was not paper. It was created using an old technique sometimes known as 'charcoal detailing.' If you've ever seen a charcoal sketch of someone which looks like a photograph, then read on, because I've always been baffled as to why these never turned out to be part-caricature like portraits always seem to.

The photo had already absorbed a lethal amount of acid from the cardboard and was going to disintegrate eventually, anyway.

As I carefully handled the portraits, I noticed that they would chip and disintegrate right in my hands no matter how careful I was. I was horrified that my family history was literally crumbling right before my eyes, so I vowed to spend the time and money and get these portraits duplicated before Father Time had his way with them. Since the acid in the cardboard mount was responsible, I spoke with a restoration expert in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as to the feasibility of separating the photo paper from the mount. I was advised that this would be next to impossible to accomplish, but it wouldn't make any difference: the photo had already absorbed a lethal amount of acid from the cardboard and was going to disintegrate eventually, anyway.


We opted to create exact duplicates of the portraits, so a special camera was required to take high-density oversize negatives, about two inches square. From there, the artist created an exact replica of Amanda's portrait (albeit flat) that I was able to mount in the oval wood frame. To the untrained eye, it looks just as it was when the real image was there.

Although I paid only $300, the artist took nearly three months to complete the work and told me that had she known what the job entailed, she would have charged me will over $1000.

Ira's case was much trickier. Although I paid only $300, the artist took nearly three months to complete the work and told me that had she known what the job entailed, she would have charged me well over $1000. (She said that there were no hard feelings since she 'went to school' herself with the job and learned a great deal in the process!)


With the technique of charcoal detailing, the photograph paper is mounted on a wooden frame which is made to be the exact size of the photo. Next, a thin layer of fine linen, sized larger than the wooden frame (but in the same shape) is stretched over the mounted photo and around the sides of the frame then sealed on the wood in the back with beeswax. The beeswax dries like glue, but it also stretches the linen tighter across the photo since it shrinks as it dries.


After the linen has completely dried, it is basically flush against the photo underneath and because the material is fine, it is easy to see the image through the linen. The artist then takes a number of different types of charcoal implements and proceeds to exactly copy the photo onto the linen. The linen is then usually cut off and images can be easily transferred to paper, but still retaining that 'charcoal' look.


Ira's case was different, however. For some reason, no one ever bothered to remove the linen - the linen actually became the portrait! Over time, the photo and the linen had become one. Unfortunately, in order to make an exact duplicate photo, the linen had to be carefully peeled from the photo in strips, effectively destroying it. However, an excellent copy was made of the photo, and the artist was even able to retain the old yellowish color of the original.


With the two duplicates, I was able to order smaller scale images which promptly became the first two items in my now large digital library. I vowed right at that moment that I was going to contact every relative I could and offer to scan their precious old images so that when Time claimed them, as well, we would all have the information they contained in a format which would last forever.

I burst out laughing and everyone wanted to know what was so funny. I informed them that this 'friend' in the photo was my mom.

This is where genealogy came into the picture. It was easy to contact close relatives, but then things quickly started to branch out. I was having more and more difficulty identifying people and places as the branches got further out on the tree. I decided to get a copy of Family Tree Maker and enter folks into it as I ran across their images and other records just to keep track of things, but that wasn't the best part.


Without realizing it, I soon was spending far more time on the names than on the photos. In fact, the names had become avenues to photos! For example, I was visiting a cousin of my grandfather and mentioned that I was doing work with the Wayt family. He paused for a minute then mentioned something about being sure he had some old photos that might have something to do with the Wayt and Winters families. Well, the photo above was labeled on the back 'Bertha [Wayt] Winters and three of her kids with friend on the left.' I burst out laughing and everyone wanted to know what was so funny. I informed them that this 'friend' in the photo was my mom.


These are the kinds of things which bring the 'hobby' of genealogy alive and give it meaning. I'm sure that the reader has had similar experiences.

0 views