A 114-year-old family photograph album is discovered by chance on eBay and won – despite a last-minute collector’s challenge. The album had never been considered lost or missing because no one in the family even knew of its existence. Old Friends tells the story behind the pictures and then, with only names as a starting point, traces the lives of a dozen friends gathered at a house party in Beloit, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1898. Author Jeffrey Carmel recounts how he decided to turn this story into an insightful – and highly unusual – photographic book, Old Friends – Nearly Forgotten.
The eBay search had returned this item: “1897-98 Photo Album Family of J.B. Ford Plate Glass King” the listing read in part, “…a ledger book with blank pages, patented 1888, containing 225 mounted vintage, original gelatin silver pictures taken by Stella D. Ford, granddaughter of John Baptiste Ford (1811-1903), generally known as ‘the father of the plate glass industry’ in the United States.” The auction was to end in five days.
I was staggered. Stella Dunbar Ford, Captain Ford’s youngest granddaughter, was my maternal grandmother. In 1897 she was 19. Here, for the world to see – and anyone to acquire for that matter – was her photo album. The album had never been considered lost or missing because no one in the family even knew of its existence.
As I read on, the questions were already racing through my head. How did something as special and sentimental ever leave my grandmother’s possession? Who had kept it all this time, and how did it end up on eBay? Roman artifacts still turn up in farmers’ fields, but what were the chances, I wondered, of such a treasure surfacing – and being discovered randomly, in the space of a fleeting, five-day window of time – after being out of sight for more than a century?
The heart-stopping listing included clear scans of 16 photographs from the album, including the title page where the word “Photographs” and “Stella D. Ford” stood all alone, penned in the familiar handwriting I had seen on so many birthday cards and letters when I was young. For each of those 16 photos, the eBay seller had earnestly researched and provided additional information about the locations and subjects identified by my grandmother.
Most of the images appeared to have been taken on a family camping vacation with my grandmother’s parents, siblings and friends – either posing with their catch of the day or seated on chairs drawn up in front of a large white tent; others were of cousins in Wyandotte; the remaining few were of various individuals in Davenport, Iowa, and Beloit, Wisconsin, including, much to my surprise, the last photograph described by the eBay seller in his listing as: “Stella in a buggy with Phil (?).” Phil I instantly knew to have been a friend, possibly a beau, and the author of more than two-dozen letters that would be written to my grandmother over the following decade. Now I had a rather mournful face to connect with Philip Rand of Salmon, Idaho, and the packet of faded letters that for several years had been sitting on a bookshelf in my office, tied with a piece of string.
I placed a starting bid of $50, assuming no one conceivably could have an interest in someone else’s family photo album, much less bid on it. Afraid I might jinx the transaction, I decided against mentioning to anyone the amazing find until it was safely in my hands. Within the hour, unable to suppress my excitement, I had shared the news with my 93-year-old mother. She, too, was astounded, never having seen or known of such an album of her mother’s from that era, and puzzled, like me, about how and why it had surfaced after all these years.
Five anxious days and fitful nights ensued fretting about someone or something thwarting the sale. On the last day with less than five minutes to go, I sat glued to my computer screen watching the digital timer tick down in red. Soon it was 50, 45, 40 seconds…then with only 30 seconds to go there was a flurry of activity. Two anonymous collectors began upping the bid in what is known to eBay cognoscenti as a “sniper” operation whereby a computer program automatically raises the bid faster than an individual can enter keystrokes to counter. I increased my bid to an insane amount to secure the album against this last-minute assault and watched the final computerized bids fly. The price soared as the time ran down to the wire. In the end, after nine frantic bids, it was mine – for $1,800.
I was ecstatic. I was also piqued at having paid such an astronomical price to retrieve something that had once belonged to my immediate family. On the other hand, I reasoned, it was the only way to gain an extraordinary glimpse into the past, and to keep it from disappearing again, forever. When I told my mother of the auction’s dramatic finale, she was over the moon, yet ever the matriarch, she insisted that it was her familial imperative to pay for the album.
When the seller contacted me via email, I inquired about the provenance of the album. All he could tell me was that he had bought it on eBay a few months earlier. “I do remember the seller from whom I purchased the album mentioned that it had come from a recent estate sale,” he wrote. As a 74-year-old living month-to-month on Social Security supplemented by his eBay sales, he was clearly very pleased about this windfall. “The high price of this item will be of great help,” he told me, “So much help that I am taking the day off eBay, as far as listing, to celebrate.” That is all I know about where the album had been for the past century and more.
Two days later I had the binder. It was intact, but barely. Its once brown leather cover was now mostly a powdery, gray paperboard, its accordion-like cloth spine was completely exposed, and the delicate, pale brown pages were torn or crumbling; many were separated from the binding but miraculously in the proper order. The pictures themselves were in fine shape. Moreover, every single photograph had its carefully penned caption in my grandmother’s hand. As I sat in the post office parking lot, marveling at this fortuitous find, I was arrested by one particularly striking, black and white image of three men in rain-soaked oilskins, formal collars, and felt homburgs, standing before a canvas tent with a catch of 30 good-sized fish strung between three poles. The photo was loose on the page, having been removed by the eBay seller to scan for the teaser. The caption, penned in ink, had faded to sepia, but my grandmother’s distinctive hand was eminently legible and the same at 19 as it was at 95: “Capt. Wood, Dr. Norcross, Papa.” “Papa,” was her father, Emory Low Ford, rarely captured on photographic plates or film, but caught in that instant as a 51-year-old outdoorsman in the prime of his life. In less than three years he would be gone, the victim of a shipboard smallpox outbreak in the Mediterranean.
I drove straight to my parents’ house a few miles away to share this treasure with my mother. Still amazed at the unfolding of this fantastic turn of events, and then finally holding her mother’s album in her hands, she smiled and said: “Honestly, I don’t know how you find such things.”For the next week my mother pored over the pictures with a magnifying glass, pointing out specific images and familiar relatives while remarking again and again that never before had she seen a picture of her mother, her aunts, or uncle from before the turn of the century, nor did she know much about their lives at that time. “Other than the oft-repeated, romanticized stories about Captain Ford and the fortunes he made and lost,” she said, “like so many families, no one much talked about the past.”
My mother died two months later after a long and wonderful life. Of all the special memories, few compare to sharing with her this totally serendipitous and priceless photographic history and her childlike delight in savoring one image in particular, of her mother, some 114 years earlier, appropriately curled up on a hammock with a golden retriever, my mother’s beloved breed.
Jeffrey Carmel is a San Diego-based journalist, editor and author. Old Friends is available online at $3.99.