Do you have ancestors who liked to tinker with cars? Did they have photos
taken of themselves with their cars?
Cars in family photos can be a great help in dating the photos and
determining locations. If the license tag is visible, you can get the year and
often the county and state.
If the tag is not visible, as in the above photo, then you may be able to study the make and
model of the car to at least set the earliest date the photo could have been
taken. I had a cousin who was an expert at this. He could look at almost any
car and tell you the year and type of car it was.
In the above photo, Ralph B. Pierce poses on the trunk of a small
two-seater car in front of his father’s Reservoir Inn convenience store and gas
station on Moffett Road in Mobile, Alabama. The young boy is not identified. Another
car can just be made out in the background.
The two-seater car turned out to be a something of a mystery.
At first I thought it could have been a British import. I checked with an expert on vintage British cars and he said this one
wasn’t either a Morris Minor or Austin 7, both of which it resembles. The tire wheels don’t look to be the originals, which could have been wire rims.
The car doesn’t appear to have any component that is a Minor, and
although the wheels might not be original, they look like they have four hub nuts,
while a Minor’s wheel hubs only had three. The steering wheel is not from a Minor.
Another cousin solved the mystery.
Ralph built the car from junked parts in the backyard of the Reservoir
Inn. His brother Raymond for a time operated a repair garage from the back of
the Reservoir Inn and that’s where Ralph got the parts.
So the two-seater in this case isn’t much help in dating the photo. But
there are other clues that show that the photo was taken sometime between 1940
We know this because the woodsy area to the right of the building shows
that the Mobile Water Works and Sewer System had not yet built its filtration
plant on Moffett Road. The plant went into operation in 1944. And Ralph’s
father, N.B. “Bonie” Pierce, opened the Reservoir Inn in 1940. So the photo had
to have been taken between those two years.
Of course, there is still the mystery of what the car body was
originally. Any guesses?
This is believed to be a photo of Cornelius "Neal" Pierce (b. 1874), who lived in both Mobile County, Alabama, and adjoining Jackson County, Mississippi.
Note Neal's suit, double-breasted vest, and small loose bow tie. This style of dress was common between 1889 and 1895. Neal looks to be around 20 years old in the photo, so that would place this image as having been made in the 1890s.
Neal and other members of the Pierce family often crossed the Alabama-Mississippi state line over their lifetimes to farm or work in the rural communities.
Did you have ancestors who lives on both sides of a county or state line? Did that cause problems trying to track them in census records?
In the above photo, Beatrice Valara Pierce (1921-1993),
left, is walking on a sidewalk in downtown Mobile, Alabama, with friend and
neighbor Laverne Brannan. This photo was probably taken at Royal and Dauphin
Sidewalk photography was a style that boomed during the
Great Depression and World War II years. The Footnote Maven on her blog Shades
of the Departed, featured a column by the Educated Genealogist Sheri Fenley, who
researched the history of this form of photography.
Because of the hard times not many people were coming into
photo studios to have their pictures taken. So photographers went out on the
sidewalks to drum up business.
Fenley wrote that “Saturdays were the day of the week that
most folks came to town. People would be strolling down the main street,
unaware that their photo was about to be taken. After the cameraman snapped
their photos, he would approach them and offer a coupon or business card.” The coupon
allowed the customer to buy the photo for a small fee at the studio.
As in almost everything else in life, con artists also
operated on the sidewalks. Fenley said that during World War II, a number of
unscrupulous so-called photographers preyed on soldiers on furlough. “They
snapped the serviceman’s photo and for a price (to be paid up front) they would
promise to mail the photo to a loved one back home. An investigation into these
‘pestilential sidewalk photographers’ found that not only did they neglect to
mail the photos as promised, their cameras were completely devoid of film!”
N.B. "Bonie" Pierce (1880-1964) and his wife Julia Lavinia Moody (1886-1965) pose in front of a large azalea bush in Bienville Square, the hub of downtown Mobile.
This photo may have been taken in the 1940s. Men generally stopped wearing hats after World War II, but Bonie continued to wear one most of his life. A city bus can be seen in the background driving along one side of the square. A number of the buildings in the background had been demolished by the 1960s and downtown fell on hard times.
Located in the block bordered
by the streets of Dauphin, Saint Joseph, Saint Francis, and North Conception, Bienville
Square has been a popular gathering place since the 1850s. At one time a cast
iron fence enclosed the square and there was Civil War cannon mounted on one side of the block.
The city added the large cast
iron fountain with its acanthus leaf design to the center of the square in the
1890s, about the same time it added a bandstand. The current bandstand was built in 1941.
Almost from its beginning,
the square has served as a place for orators, political gatherings, war bond
drives and labor rallies. President Theodore Rooseveltaddressed crowds from the square in 1905 about the
importance of thePanama Canal to theport of Mobile.
With the revival of downtown Mobile around the turn of the 21st century, Bienville Square is again a popular gathering place, and a place to have your photo taken.
Digital cameras have made photography so easy and cheap to take hundreds of photos that younger people may not know that it once required a bit of thought and money.
They also may not know that most people, including professional photographers, took black-and-white photos.
Before color film and prints became cheap and easily purchased, photographers offered hand-colored black-and-white prints to make them look like color photos.
No doubt hand-colored prints cost a little more than black-and-white prints.
Beatrice Valara Pierce (1921-1993), who almost everyone called Bea, had this hand-colored print made for her high school graduation in 1938.
Note the diploma scroll in her right hand. She graduated from Wilmer High School in Wilmer, Alabama, after the 11th grade. At the time, high school stopped at that grade, at least for those in the country school..
Inspired by one of her teachers, Bea often repeated her dream of becoming a teacher. But she never pursued the dream.
Clearly, having this photo commemorating her graduation was important to Bea.
Do you have similar family photos in your collection? Have you thought about why they may have been important to your ancestor?
Two of the five sons of N.B. "Bonie" Pierce and Julia L. Moody pose in what is probably the front yard of their farm at Pierce Level, just south of Wilmer, Alabama.
On the left is George Carl Pierce (1916-1989), always called Carl. Beside him is Ralph Bailey Pierce (1917-1984).
Notice the difference in the two boys' dress. Carl is in overalls and barefooted. He looks ready to play or perhaps work in the fields. Ralph, on the other hand, is wearing a white shirt, bow tie, dress pants, and dress shoes. Perhaps he was going to a party or a formal event of some kind.
Being born just 18 months apart, the two brothers may have been closer to each other growing up than they were to their other brothers and sisters.
Were you closer to one of your siblings than to the others? Why?