Mary M Brown, 1871–1953
Born in New York City in the spring of 1871, Mary (christened Margaret Braun) was the eldest child of German immigrants Frederick Braun, a carpenter, and Bertha Schneider Braun. They would eventually have four more children, including twin girls of whom only one survived infancy.
In 1880, the family – by now listed with the spelling Brown, which is what they seem to have used most of the time after this – occupied an apartment at 604 West 49th Street in midtown Manhattan. I was excited to find the address on Street View; less so to learn that it’s now a FedEx depot.
The 1890 US census has largely been lost, so the next I know of Mary is her marriage in 1892 to Conrad Jacob Hammer, who had come to America from Germany as a teenager and was earning his crust as a barber. They settled in the upstate New York village of Catskill, where it appears that Mary’s family lived with them, at least for a time. Her father died there the following year, but the 1900 census lists her mother and three adult siblings as part of the household, too.
Family lore states that Mary’s brother Frederick had had a breakdown after serving in the Spanish–American War, so couldn’t care for himself, and that one of her sisters – either Pauline or Carrie, I can’t recall – later developed an eccentric devotion to some sort of guru figure, to whom she gave all of her money. Families, eh? That the whole lot of them seem to have followed their big sister to Catskill and made themselves comfortable in her home for the long term suggests she may have been “the reliable one”, a role nobody enjoys much. As ever, though, this is groundless speculation on my part.
In any case, Mary and Conrad, who was by now in business as a barber and tobacconist in the village, went on to have five children of their own. Mary’s pictured here with a little girl who I’m almost sure is Bertha, the eldest (and my great-grandmother), born in 1894.
I find this image all the more interesting for its overexposed, almost-destroyed qualities. The shape of the fragment is puzzling: what could someone have wanted to crop out of the top corner with such rough, hasty slashes of the scissors? And the way probably-Bertha is squinting into the light, and the stern look on Mary’s face and the hand on her hip, give it a certain immediacy. I sent the photo to Jayne Shrimpton for analysis (I’m in danger of getting addicted to doing this now) – here is some of what she said:
We see that this photograph was taken outdoors, perhaps outside the fence of a park, and it appears to be a casual amateur ‘snapshot’, rather than a professional photograph. The middle classes first became interested in photography as a serious hobby and leisure pursuit in the 1880s and, since this photograph pre-dates the early 20th century surge in amateur photography inspired by cheap, user-friendly cameras, I suspect the photographer was an early enthusiast, implying someone who enjoyed a fairly comfortable financial position. The image of a young woman and, presumably, her daughter on a family outing strongly suggests that the photographer may well have been the husband/father.You have already suggested that the little girl in the photograph may be an ancestor born in 1894 and the fashion clues relating to the lady’s outfit support this perfectly by indicating a close date range of c.1897-9 for the photograph. Her stylish outfit reflects the art nouveau aesthetic taste of the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries, which favoured an hour-glass silhouette for women. This fashionable line is expressed well in her fitted jacket with extraordinarily narrow waistline and tailored skirt shaped with panels to fit smoothly over the hips before sweeping outwards towards a flared hemline. Clearly the season is winter, for on top of her jacket she wears a warm shoulder cape that appears to be edged and lined with sheep’s fleece, and also wears leather gloves. The shape of her ornate hat trimmed with bows and possibly feathers is typical of the end of the century, while the high puff to her sleeves, demonstrating the last phase of the full ‘leg-o’-mutton’ style, is also characteristic of the late 1890s.
Like her mother, the little girl is also well-dressed, confirming the likelihood of this being a middle-class family. The epaulettes to her coat mirror her mother’s sleeves while the full shape of this outdoor garment would have suited the loose child’s smock dress probably worn beneath. Children’s headwear was quite varied at this time and I haven’t seen this particular style of cap before, but her picturesque swansdown boa or muffler and matching muff would have been very fashionable when this photograph was taken. She appears to be aged about four or five here, so unless she was born at the beginning of 1894, this may rule out 1897 as the year of the photograph: realistically I think it more likely that it dates to 1898 or 1899.
We also have a more formal portrait of Mary and Conrad a few years later, with Bertha and the rest of their surviving children: Paul, Frederick, and Ruth, the baby (all of whom have evidently inherited their father’s ears).
Mary outlived her husband, and all but two of their children. Ruth, the youngest, died in tragic circumstances in 1915, as reported in the New York Times (I’ve blogged about that incident before, but decided to take it down, as I was never very comfortable with the way the post turned out). Frederick, who my grandmother remembered as a lovely, kind uncle, died after a head injury at work when he was in his early forties. Mary herself died in Catskill in 1953 at the age of 81, by which time she had four grandchildren and at least two great-grandchildren.