Maplewood History: Close Examination of Historic Thomas Photos Leads to Some Surprising Discoveries – Part 2


From the feedback I get some of you in the audience seem to be enjoying the forensic examination of these Thomas family artifacts.  I am too. It might be safe to say there is no one who is enjoying this more than me.

I am learning a lot, about our community, about what life was like here in the past and I am learning a lot about the artifacts themselves.

I’ve been doing this sort of thing for a long time.  First with old houses and old furniture and then with antique woodworking tools.  It is intriguing to take them apart and try to put them back together in better shape than you found them.  With all of these things I try to understand what has happened to them in the past. What should be saved and what should be tossed?

Some of the decisions are difficult. Some are easy. With my home, for example, 40+ years ago it was an easy decision to gut the kitchen and bathroom.  Both had been through some unfortunate remodels that didn’t age well. Today with so much interest in mid-century modern stuff, some would probably argue that I should have saved those metal cabinets from the 1940’s. But you can’t save everything.

With the Thomas family artifacts, mainly the framed photographs and the framed Vic Vac drawing of the Sutton Mansion, I cleaned the frames and the pine board backings thoroughly with only water.  For the glass I used a 50/50 alcohol and water mix. I don’t trust any kind of cleaner around old photographs. Even Windex might leave some sort of a residue that could affect the images negatively to my way of thinking.  Then I let everything dry thoroughly before reassembling. We now know because of the disassembly that the photograph of Kate is from 1874, William Lyman’s probably is as well. The others may have been made about 1882. 1874 was 154 years ago. Those are old photographs!

All of these Thomas family artifacts had become permeated with coal dust.  Old houses are too as anyone who has worked on them will tell you. It is nasty stuff.  You don’t have to fool around with it much to realize that leaving that stuff in the ground is a good idea.  My parents who are in their 90’s still recall how bad the pollution from coal was in St. Louis when they were young.  Coal dust would settle on everything even the furniture in your house. Clean coal. Nonsense.

In this post we’ll have another look at some of the very interesting discoveries made during the examination of these images. Once again I’d like to thank the Thomas family descendants who have made this possible.

You may recognize these photographs of William Lyman and Catherine Compton “Kate” Thomas from my last post. Kate’s photograph had the year, 1874, written on the back. It was while examining these images closely that I made some unexpected discoveries.
With an angled light on the image I could see that something had been done to Kate’s eyes.
Even more altering had been done to William’s portrait. Someone, I’m guessing the photographer, touched up his pupils, his goatee and the lapel of his jacket. I don’t know if you’ll be able to see this with a small screen, his eyebrows have been thickened a bit and they may have even given his nostril a little more definition. What we have here are very early examples of image altering. I’m guessing that it is probably ink that was used.
This image is cropped from the photograph of the Thomas children on the lawn.  Lines under both eyes were added. The curl of hair on the forehead was accentuated a little. The mark above her right eye looks as though it was done at the same time. These alterations look a little ham handed to me. At first I thought they were dirt and I was going to remove them from the digital copy.
The image of the Thomas children was the only one of the four that had come unstuck from the mat. The glue that was used appeared to be hide glue.  I am familiar with hide glue from working on antique furniture. It is a glue made from animal hides.  Sold dry it must be mixed with water and heated in order to be used. I have everything needed to do that and ordinarily would have with a piece of furniture. Since this was a photograph I opted instead to buy an archival linen tape used for hinge mounting photographs and art work. I got it at Art Mart. It has a self adhesive backing and was available for 50 cents a foot. Cool.
This is the back of the mat board. You can see the new strip of linen tape at the top. I think all that is needed to remove the tape should someone want to in the future is to slightly moisten it. Also notice how the pine boards have imprinted themselves on the back of the mat board and the upper and lower backs of the photographs. Last post I showed how the middle photos had been separated from the pine board by an 1882 newspaper and some scraps of mat board. That is why they look clean compared to the other two. Also notice how the two portraits have been rotated a tad in order to enhance their appearance from the front. It would be another hundred and forty something years before someone could accomplish the same with just the command “Rotate”.
My next move was to cover everything with a layer of acid free paper. This is just copy paper like you use in your printer. It has to be acid free or documents would yellow and fall apart in storage.
Then I replaced the newspaper.  That was an exciting find.
All the pieces are back in place. At the top are the remnants of the Scruggs, Vandervoort and Barney shopping bag. They are in a clear archival sleeve. In the middle are the odd pieces of mat board and at the bottom the newspaper is folded just the way I found it.  I also added the reprint of the 1930 page from the Post Dispatch that I found using the newspaper scrap.  That newspaper scrap was lost in the process.
I included a note explaining where that fragment had been located. Then I put it in a clear archival sleeve and added it to the rest of the artifacts before I reattached the pine boards.
This is a view of the three pine boards with their good side up.
There was another interesting detail that was located in the upper right hand corner of this image of Ellendale Home Place.
It appears to be a name but I can’t read it. I wonder if it is something on the paper like a watermark. The first two letters could be J R.  The word looks like it might start with R and end with E S.  It is embossed which seems like that’s not something you would necessarily want on a photograph. Hmmm.  Any ideas?





  1. I think I found it! After looking more closely at the J that I thought was an S, I see now that we are looking at the middle of an F. From that, I typed in F K Rives and guess what came up? BFK Rives Printmaking Papers!

      • I think you may have it, Jeroen or whatever your name is. I found this online: Perhaps its best quality is its consistency. Made with 100% cotton and no optical brightening agents, it is a bright white, smooth, soft and pliable sheet. Dimensionally stable, BFK Rives is a versatile substrate with an absorbent wove surface that is suitable for all forms of printmaking.

        Its smooth surface, soft texture, and light sizing allow it to pick up every detail. It has two natural deckles, and two simulated, being torn at the finishing stage. BFK Rives is available in white, grey, tan, and cream.

        A question that is often raised is what do the initials BFK stand for? Answer: They were the initials of the owners of the Rives mill in France at the beginning of the 19th century – Blanchet Frères & Kiebler.

        • I thought Jeroen was clearly written, unlike BFK Rives 😉 Look it up sometime… it’s a Dutch name. Probably most well-known name is Jeroen Krabbé, the actor known in the US mostly for the role of the doctor in The Fugitive.

          • It was clearly written. My own ignorance is to blame. On this site I deal mostly with names that folks have constructed for the internet. I thought yours was one of those as well. Please accept my apology, Jeroen.

            • I gave it a wink and nod… I don’t blame you Doug. Keep up the good work, it’s exciting to take part in the discoveries.

  2. Hi, Doug! Not good with reposting links but the website “Geneology in St. Louis” has a comprehensive page of “Early St. Louis Photographers”. Did not see a match. May be useful for future reference. I believe the picture has a watermark in the paper. My recent years working with art papers would suggest that to me. Thx for sharing!

    • You’re welcome, Pickett. I, too, am familiar with watermarks on some art papers. It may be just that. Seems odd though to find one on a photographic paper doesn’t it? Especially one that is visible on the image. It wasn’t easy to see though. Thanks for your comment.

      • Agreed it’s a tough find but the name Rives is certainly out there. I also wonder if the first letter is not a J but rather an S. In searching for the font of the lettering the S is typically the only one with the curl on top. Most J’s I found have a sharp edge.

      • Tom, A grazing light is what I attempted to photograph. It definitely helped. The fact that the name is written in script and the top portion is missing just makes it hard to decipher. It is good to hear from you.

    • That is thinking outside of the box, George. It did not even occur to me. It won’t happen now because everything has been reassembled and returned to the owner. But do you think it might possibly have been risky to the photographic print given its age?

    • Hey George, I answered your comment once already from my phone. I don’t know where it went. You may have a good idea there. I suppose one would have to be awfully wary no to damage the surface of the image. It did not even cross my mind to do that. It is too late now anyway. The framed photos have all been reassembled and returned to their owner. Thanks for your idea.

    • Hey Wanda, Nothing surfaced from a quick Google search for J R Rines. I was hoping to find that possibly they or he were a St. Louis based manufacturer of photographic papers. Perhaps we haven’t got the name right yet.

Comments are closed.