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Objects and photographs – what family heirlooms and photographs can reveal about your ancestors

When people approach us to undertake their Kytherian family history, they are often driven by a longing to make family connections and to learn more about their ancestors, in some cases without having any tangible evidence of their lives. Although written records are a vital foundation of researching family history and reveal many valuable details, it is often what is not written that can also offer valuable insight into the lives of our ancestors. Family stories passed down from generation to generation, family heirlooms and photographs, can all be used in conjunction with written records to piece together more about our ancestors and the times in which they lived.

My university studies have taught me how to better understand written records, what they reveal or what they hide, or to look beyond the most obvious things in a photograph and also how to ‘read’ objects, all which are valuable tools in researching and compiling a family history.

For instance, they say a picture tells a thousand words, but often you have to know how to read them as they can lead to many fascinating facts. Family knowledge passed down orally by parents or grandparents, is key to identifying people in old photographs, but have you thought that a photograph can often reveal more about people and places, but can also hold secrets that can be unlocked by reading written documents. Such is the case with the Fatseas photographic collection and the discovery of the photographer’s catalogue, which has helped not only to identify some of the faces in the photos, but provides us with the photographer’s handwriting, how much he charged for portraits and the names of individuals who paid to have these portraits commissioned.

You may have an old family portrait from the late 1800s or early 1900s, and although they are a wonderful source to identify ancestors, have you ever wondered why the people are always so solemn and don’t smile, or why they are dressed in such fancy clothes when you know that this would have been beyond their means? This is when further research of written records helps to provide some answers. For example, by researching the history of photography, I learnt that best results in older methods of photography required motionless subjects and thus the best facial expression was a natural stare, eliminating distortions caused by smiling. Studio photography was a trend amongst the upper and middle classes of the Victorian period which later spread to the working classes throughout Europe and the world including Australia and America, with studios often providing outfits to those who could not afford fancy clothes. Families who were not wealthy would save for months to have photographs taken to portray how well they were doing (even if they weren’t) to send to relatives living in distant lands.

Here is an example of how to read a photo. My mother has a photograph taken in an aloni in Kythera. She has identified all the people in the photograph including my great-grandmother, grandmother and Amalia’s grandmother and judging from their ages, the photo appears to have been taken in the 1920s. She also knows from what her mother had told her, that the photographer was my great-grandmother’s nephew who had migrated to Australia and had visited Kythera during that period. The photograph therefore not only shows women working the fields, but also provides hints about the photographer’s financial success in Australia, as he was able to afford a trip to Greece as well as the luxury of owning his own portable camera. The photograph also has a windmill in the background and given its close proximity, would suggest that the wheat being threshed in this photo would have been taken there to be ground into flour. The photo is also of historical value as the windmill no longer stands instead replaced by houses, with the area still referred to by the older residents of Potamos as anemomili (windmills).

L-R: Kiriakoula Megalakonomou, Metaxia Megalokonomou, Stamatina Megalokonomou, Grigoria Fardouli, Zaharoula Megaloknomou (nee Tsambira), Pandanoussa Statakou and George Simos. Note the windmill in the background.

Objects too can reveal much about a person and the community they lived in. A few years ago I was given a very tarnished brass coffee grinder which once belonged to my distant aunt’s father believed to date back to the early 1900s. His possession of such an object helped to verify he was a coffee drinker and that coffee supplies were readily available in Potamos, as can also be verified from information Amalia and I have extracted from the registry records, which reveal many men held occupations of coffee merchants and café owners. After polishing it and taking it apart to clean it, not only did I discover 100 year old coffee grounds which still had a faint aroma of coffee, but I also discovered a distinct pattern as well as the manufacturer’s mark and with further research I was able to ascertain it had been made in Athens from a popular design manufactured in Turkey. Further what this object also indicates is that at that time there was a steady flow of trade between Kythera and Athens.

Coffee Grinder, Once owned by Ioannis Psalidas of Potamos.

Here are some basic tools which you may find helpful in taking your family history research to the next level.

· For photographs: take a look at the clothing and the background, look for the photographer’s details often appearing on the back or embossed in the corner as these can all offer valuable insights for dating and identifying where and when old family photographs were taken.

· For objects: do you have family knowledge about where they came from and who owned them and how they were used? If not, conduct further research from books or online to help you gain a better understanding of how your ancestors came to possess the item or used it.

· Old family stories can sometimes provide vital clues to identifying people and places in photographs and help to validate written records which may unlock information about family heirlooms and teach you more about your ancestors and the times they lived in.

Happy researching!

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