And often, a tad eerie.
I inherited, by default, a large oval portrait of a rather handsome looking gent. His hair slicked to the sides and mustache nicely polished, my anonymous ancestor sports a vested suit and tie most certainly purchased from a fine haberdashery. But unfortunately, no name of the gentleman is found on the back of the picture, leaving me guessing whom this character might be.
Considering that the identity of the portrait studio could provide clues to my nameless ancestor, I studied the curved cardboard backside of the photo for a studio name. But the stamp has, over time, crumbled and disappeared leaving only a fine, unreadable imprint of the studio stamp.
Recalling the cleverness of my 4th cousin when he brushed an ancestor's tombstone with shaving cream for easier readability, it dawned on me the same technique can be applied to indented lettering on old photos. So I snatched a piece of chalk from my desk drawer and lightly rubbed it against the indention, brushing off the surface and revealing the inscription:
"Chicago Portrait Company"
Ok, I thought, that's interesting, but I am not aware of an ancestor living in Chicago.
Still with no clue to the identity of my anonymous chap, I proceeded with what I know best: I researched the Chicago Portrait Company. And I became intrigued with its history.
The Chicago Portrait Company left a fascinating and quirky mark in history. It was in operation from 1893 through 1940 and though its offices were indeed in Chicago, the company was in fact a base for traveling salesmen throughout the country.
The salesmen or "drummers" fanned out across the rural countryside, knocking on doors selling beautiful handmade portraits of revered ancestor's photos, often replicas of tintypes redone in pastel, crayon or sepia.
The appeal was the price, $2.00-$3.00, but these fast-talking salesmen made their money in the "hook": delivering the finished portraits in large, beautiful burled wood frames with curved glass.
The cost of the portrait with the frame was of course, much more, but the "line" to the recipient was "no obligation to purchase the frame." Difficult to resist the finished portrait in its lovely frame, the unsuspecting customers doled out the dollars to the Chicago Portrait Company.
But the "sinker" to the scheme was that the expensive looking "burled wood frames" were not solid wood at all, but cheap replicas made from painted plaster.
The Chicago Portrait Company made a quick fortune off of people's sympathies, especially rural families who had little access to "big city" studios. But ironically, the company tumbled after they were sued in North Carolina for failure to pay taxes on out-of-state sales.
And so, I go back to my large, oval, bubble glass portrait of my ancestor, his identity still unknown but I am now intrigued not by the history of my anonymous ancestor, but of the legend behind the portrait itself.
The quirky story behind the commissioning of the portrait of my ancestor and the history of the Chicago Portrait Company.
And how my family fell victim to its scheme: hook, line and sinker.
Keep searching for answers,