The image above arrived at the Heirloom Art Studio as a tiny record of a Great Grandfather's hunting camp. No more than three inches across and faded almost to single values of beige and gray, the photograph needed to be copied and restored to bring back the contrast and detail and enlarged greatly in order to adequately view the people, place and things within the scene. Accomplishing this task is what I do best and would be no particular problem to present my customer with an excellent image he could study and display for future generations.
Before I began my work, however, the client asked if I could help identify the age of the photograph.
The paper and silvered emulsion surface of the original photograph was of little help since this particular paper process covered far too many years to isolate this image to a specific decade.
Dating photographs by the contents is the next clue. Woman's clothing is easier to identify than men's wear because styles and hem lengths, throughout time, tended to change approximately every ten years. However, we have no woman in this photograph.
As these gentlemen are not in formal wear where jacket lapels and tie widths would give immediate clues to age, little could be deduced looking at the original photograph because of its size and condition. I would have to head for the camera and darkroom to begin the restoration process and see what an enlargement of the image might bring to view for more clues to date the photograph.
What the client really needed to know was whether the photograph had captured his ancester before or after a particular event in his life. Was the photograph from 1875, before the event, or taken around 1880? Well, we shall head for the darkroom and see what develops. Sorry, I couldn't resist saying that!
Enlarging the photograph and viewing details up close brought forth many discoveries. Very obvious was the dark skinned family servant who was taken along on the hunting trip to prepare meals (and one can only assume beds, boots and whatever else servants were expected to take charge of). At least it seemed the hunting party took part in pulling feathers from the wild game recently shot or did they merely pose with these birds to make the scene look good?
Tiny signals ranged the photograph but not within the narrow span needed to determine the date my customer was hoping to place the event. THEN.....I spotted the one detail that might lead to a difinitive answer.
Look closely inside the open flaps of the tent. What do you see? These hunters took the time to pack all the essentials. All the modern conveniences were brought on this trip including.......the rolled toilet paper. AHA!! This could be a great clue.
Any good recorder of trivial facts knows that bathroom essentials have been around, in one form or another, since ancient times. An expert on trivia might know that Joseph C. Gayetty, of New York, started producing the first packaged toilet paper in the U.S. in 1857. It consisted of pre-moistened flat sheets medicated with aloe and was named "Gayetty’s Medicated Paper". Gayetty's name was printed on every sheet.
After a quick information search it is learned that rolled and perforated toilet paper, as we are familiar with today, was invented in the late 1870's. Various sources attribute it to the Albany Perforated Wrapping (A.P.W.) Paper Company in 1877, and to the Scott Paper Company in 1879.
The customer needed to date this photograph of his ancestor either in 1875 or 1880. It had to be taken either before or after certain family events, but which time period. For our gentlemen hunters to have modern rolled toilet paper in their encampment means this photograph could not have been taken in 1875. If this hunting trip took place after a recorded family event, the existence of toilet paper in the image absolutely dates it to 1880.
Imagine! Toilet paper is the single clue that gives us an exact window to narrow down the date of our unique photograph. It just goes to show that you never know what you'll find in a photograph if you don't look into it.
On a side note, since trivia has become secondary to today's story, the Scott Paper Company was too embarrassed to put their name on their product. As the concept of toilet paper was a sensitive subject at the time, unlike Gayetty who placed his name on every paper sheet, the Scott Company customized their rolled paper for each of their specific customers. As such, the famous Waldorf Hotel became a "big name" in toilet paper.