Photographs are some of my most valued and sought after genealogical records, and they are unique in that they are one of the few records that show what ancestors looked like in a particular time and place. These images help me to humanize ancestors and make them feel more accessible. Photos also reveal hints of their personalities that may not be as apparent in documents. Although this week’s prompt asks for a discussion of a favorite photograph, I found that I couldn’t decide between three!
I chose to highlight three successive generations of women on my Dad’s side of the family. All three women lived in Nashville, at least two, possibly three, of the photographs were made by Nashville photographers, and the three women were roughly the same age at the time the photographs were taken (late teens, early 20s).
The first photograph is a tintype taken around 1860, most likely in Nashville, Tennessee. The sitter is Sallie Cassetty Robinson, my 3rd great-grandmother. She was born in 1841 in Gainesboro, Tennessee, to T. D. Cassetty, a Justice of the Peace in Nashville for many years, and Matilda Apple. In 1869, she married Samuel Robinson at her father’s home. They had one child, Thomas, and she died from complications from a stomach tumor at the young age of 45.
This tintype’s emulsion has been damaged and can be seen in this scan. However, it is still a beautiful image! Sallie is wearing a stripped dress with ruffles on the bodice, sleeves, and on the first tier of the skirt. Her hair is stylishly pulled tight against her head. Her ensemble is accented with her delicate jewelry, including a broach, ring, and drop earrings. Gold leaf was added to the image to make her jewelry stand out. This photo is very special to me because it is the only image I have of her, and it is one of the oldest photos in my collection.
The second photograph is of Sallie’s daughter-in-law, Jessie Preston Robinson, although the two women likely never met. Jessie was born in 1876 in Zanesville, Ohio. She was the oldest of Charles and Cora Preston’s three children. In 1881, Charles was recruited by the Phillips & Buttorff Manufacturing Company located in Nashville to be the foreman of the plant, and the rest of the family moved to Tennessee soon after. Jessie was an accomplished pianist and painter, and her performances in community concerts were often reported in the local newspapers. She married Thomas Robinson in 1897, and like her mother-in-law, she only had one child, also named Thomas. She died in 1966 at 90 years old, the end to a very interesting and complicated life.
This photograph of Jessie was taken at the Thuss studio in Nashville probably between 1894 and 1897. Her dress was the height of fashion in 1897, complete with the fancy lace collar, tight sleeves with a small puff at the top, and beaded, ornate bodice. Jessie’s hair has been expertly coifed in what was known as the Newport Knot with tight curls framing her face.
I have a particular attachment to photos of Jessie because of all my female ancestors, I look most like her. We both have round faces, similar facial features, and curly hair, although I do not have a cleft in my chin. Not only are we alike in appearance, but I also play the piano and paint. It is fascinating to me how physical traits and interests can be passed on through the generations.
The final photograph is a studio portrait of my great-grandmother, Frances Robinson. Frances was born in Nashville in 1911 to Nathaniel and Martha Althauser. Nathaniel attended Vanderbilt University and was the superintendent of the post office in the Stahlman Building. Frances grew up with her sister in Nashville, but they made frequent visits to Pegram to visit her mother’s family. She graduated from Central High School and later attended the Watkins Institute. In 1929 she married Thomas Robinson, Jr., and like both Jessie and Sallie, she also only had one child. She led a wild life, married multiple times, and was constantly in the newspapers.
Frances looks very glamorous in the photo, her neck and shoulders encircled by her large fox stole. Her cloche hat almost completely covers her finger waves. Her outfit is pulled together with a dainty pearl choker. This photo was a part of a series taken at the end of 1928 or very early 1929, possibly to mark the occasion of her marriage.
These three photographs are some of my very favorites not only because they are my ancestresses, but because of what they tell me about these women. All three ladies had different personalities and life experiences. Their images also show how drastically fashionable women’s clothing and beauty standards changed over a seventy year period.