Analyzing A Photo: The Holiday Party

The USDA Worcester (MA) Office Christmas Party, Circa 1947
(Digital Images; Photograph and Card Privately Held By Cynthia Shenette; Text Copyright (c) 2013 Cynthia Shenette)  I hoped to write this post sometime in December, but time got away from me, so rather than wait until next December I decided to make this my first post for 2013 while my research is still fresh in my mind!  It's interesting what you can learn about a photo without knowing much about the context in which it was taken.  Sometimes I find that the story behind a photo is like a little mystery that reveals itself over time; you notice details one day that you didn't see the day before.

My mom, Christine (Szerejko) Shenette is the young woman in the front row standing to the right of the Christmas tree.  Obviously the people in the photo are having a little holiday celebration of some sort, but I no idea who the people were or how they related to my mom's life.  Mom looks quite young in the photo, and the clothing styles in the image seem to date from sometime in the 1940s.  I figured the party might be connected to a church activity, college, or work.  I didn't recognize any of the people in the photo other than my mom so I knew it wasn't a family photo.  The people in the photo are not of college age so I took a guess that the group was probably work related.

In the 1940s Mom worked for two main employers--the ration board in Worcester, MA during World War II and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the Federal Building (also in Worcester) until she was married in June of 1953.  Last summer when I looked at this photo something jumped out at me.  Look through the window.  What do you see?  Notice the architectural elements on the building across the street? They are pretty distinctive.  I drive by the old Federal Building on my way to the Worcester Public Library all the time, but I don't usually look up. The next time I went to the library I did, and what did I see?  The top of the building on the other side of the street from the Federal Building has the same architectural elements as the building in my photo!  The holiday photo was taken while my mom worked for the USDA!

Once I knew where the photo was taken I took a closer look to see if I could recognize any of the people in the photo.  Sure enough I did!  The woman in the dark dress standing three people to the right of my mom was my mom's friend Shirley (Putnam) Johnson!  I knew Shirley as a much older woman.  I didn't see her all that often and didn't recognize her until I was able to put the photo in the correct context!

I checked the city directories at the library to narrow down the possible date range in which the photo could have been taken.  My mom is first listed as working at the USDA in the 1947 city directory.  She still worked for the ration board in early 1946 when when the 1946 directory was compiled, but most likely changed jobs later that year.  

The photo was taken in the late morning.  Look at the hands on the clock and the Danish on the table!  There is snow on the roof of the building across the street.  I might be able to narrow the date of the photo even further if I check the local weather to see if some of the Decembers between 1946 and 1952 did not have snow before Christmas.  Quite a few people worked for the USDA in the Federal Building, and there were several different regional offices.  See the evergreen corsage my mom has on?  Some of the other ladies in the photo have the same corsage, including Shirley.  I know Shirley worked in the same office as my mom.  I wonder if the ladies with the corsages worked in the same office as well.

My mom stayed in touch with her co-workers after she left the office in 1953.  During the late 1980s and 1990s the group met for lunch twice a year at Rom's restaurant in Sturbridge, MA. Mom said her co-workers were a nice group of people, and they still enjoyed one another's company some forty years later!  Given that she stayed connected all of those years I wondered who some of the other people in the group photo were. Well, didn't I stumble on something in my collection of stuff to help me to figure it out!

When my mom left the office to get married in June of 1953 her co-workers gave her a group wedding gift.  I don't know what the gift was, but I found the card that accompanied the gift in my collection.  All the people who worked with my mom signed the card!  My initial thought was that some of the people who were with the USDA in 1953 might have worked there in the 1940s as well.  Sure enough!  When I looked up the names of the people on the card in the city directories and checked their individual directory listings, I discovered that more than half of the people who signed the card in 1953 worked for the USDA in 1947!

The names on the card are: George W. Mingin, Walter B. Shaw, Shirley Johnson, Charles C. Starr, W. Earl Paddock, Lois Nelson, Irene Davis, Ralph C. Reynolds, Charles W. Turner, "Penny" [Eleanor] Reynis, Mary Lazaro, Val [Valerie] Pyzynski, Fran [Frances] Hesselton, Mary Cassidy, Bill Miller, Leon Marshall, Mildred Thomas, Jean Stewart, Evelyn Lyman, Ken [Kenneth] Boyden, Edna Sommerfeld, Arthur L. Verdi, Robert H. Beisha, Ruth Peterson, Richard H. Clark, Gayland E. Folley, Gardner Norcross, Ruth M. Darling.

I know my mother stayed quite friendly with Shirley and her husband Wallace Johnson for many years.  I also know that my mother was quite friendly with Jean Stewart and Ruth [Ruthie] Peterson and remember meeting them many years ago.  If you know or are related to any of the people listed on my card, recognize any of the people in the photograph or knew someone who worked for the USDA office in Worcester during the 1940s or 1950s I'd love to hear from you!

It really is pretty amazing how much you can find out about something without knowing much at all.  Six months ago the holiday party photo was just another photo lying at the bottom of a box in my collection.  Today it has a nice little holiday story to tell!

Other Posts You Might Like:

Happy New Year!
An Interview With My Grandmother
Christmas In Poland, 1929 - Wordless Wednesday
More Than Meets the Eye - Tuesday's Tip


Cheryl said...

What a wonderful sleuthing job you did; isn't it amazing what we can do with the resources available to us now.

Elizabeth said...

Nice analysis - that must have been fun to figure out. I did something similar with wedding photos from my grandparents' 1931 wedding and ultimately figured out just about everyone in the family wedding picture. See A Small 1931 Family Wedding.

Marian Burk Wood said...

You've given me some very good ideas for identifying the who, what, when, where of old photos. Congrats on solving the mystery and helping others solve theirs!

Denholms said...

This is such a great photo and a wonderful story. I bet it was so much fun to figure it all out. Good eyes on the architecture of the Federal Building.

Happy New Year to you!

Denholms said...

I apologize if I posted twice ;-)
I just wanted to let you know that this was a great post, and yes you have very good eyes to realize it's the Federal Building. I love the story and how you were able to reassemble it.

Happy New Year!

Kristin said...

Great detective work! It's so satisfying to dig around and find answers.

Pam Beveridge said...

Amazing work!

Barbara Poole said...

Cindy, The outcome must have brought you great satisfaction, because you covered everything, and your questions were answered. This is among my most favorite posts of yours.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you all for your comments!

Cheryl - It is amazing what we can piece together from what initially doesn't seem like much!

Elizabeth - I enjoyed your wedding post very much. I always hope to make a connection with someone who happens to stumble on my blog after Googling their ancestor's name. Have you had luck with yours?

Marian - Good luck with your identification project. I always hope that writing about what I do might be helpful to other people in some way.

Christopher (Denholms) - Thank you for stopping by, and thank you for including Heritage Zen in your Denholms blogroll! BTW, my mom worked at Denholms for a short time in the 1940s! I think she worked in the linen department part-time while she was in college.

Kristin - It was a satisfying project to work on. I feel like I have more to do, but I've made a good start.

Pam - Thank you!

Barbara - Wow! Thank you! It did bring great satisfaction. I'm hoping that some descendants of the people listed on the card contact me after seeing this post. If they do I will be sure to post an update!

Elizabeth said...

Cynthia - to follow up on your question, yet I have had quite a few relatives - second cousins and much more distant - contact me because they have found a name on one of my (two) blogs.