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Urban Archeologist: Can You Solve this Mystery?

New techniques turn an old find into a piece of history.

Hitting the tag sale trail has always been my way of relaxing. My wife thinks it is actually just an unclever way to avoid raking leaves on a Saturday. As someone who tends to take a sideways view of the world around me, getting out and looking around is actually a useful way to keep my creative juices flowing. I never know where the next blog post, anecdote or Patch article will come from, but I certainly won’t find it in a pile of leaves.

Early this summer, I guess while trying to avoid another “honey-do” list, I came across an intriguing find. At a Danbury estate sale I discovered something that I still am searching for an answer to. If you’ve been to an estate sale you know that the houses come in all kinds and conditions, from brand new to demolition ready. My favorite is stopped in time. These are the sales where it appears as though a room, or sometimes the whole house was locked or boarded up and the day of the sale is like cracking open a time capsule.

At first, this Danbury estate sale appeared to be demolition-ready. There were no signs, very few cars and the garage door was stuck partially open. It was only when I finally saw someone emerge that I decided to park the car and explore. Every sale is different in that you need to see through the clutter of items that have been piled and priced wherever a flat surface can be found. After a long search on the first floor it was in an upstairs room that I found the time capsule. Piled chest high with boxes and odd items, this was clearly a room that had not been touched in a long time.

In a cardboard box, wrapped in a sock was a piece of black glass. The edges were sharp and I wasn’t sure it was anything until it caught the light. Though dim I could make out a couple standing beside a clapboard home; it looked and felt very old.

The earliest form of photography used glass panes treated with a wet gel emulsion. This required special handling and was followed by a dry gel emulsion invented around 1879. This negative was likely made using dry emulsion. My challenge was: Could I develop a negative that was possibly 130 or more years old? A quick search on Google, a scanner and a lot of patience enabled me to process this portrait of a 19th Century rural couple. 

This is the mystery: Who were they? Where was this taken? Is this New England or possibly the “old country”?

The image itself provides the only clues to its origin. Knowing now that I can develop these glass negatives has led me to offer outright to any museum, historical society or private owner — if you have some glass negatives that you would like to see developed; I will volunteer my new skill for free. I may ask only to keep a copy of the developed image.

Coming next week: The Elephant’s Trunk reveals a special Thanksgiving find!

Greg Van Antwerp is a Brookfield resident and blogger, who can be found on the weekends in search of a good 'dig' or a good story. You can read more about his adventures by visiting his blog.

ts November 17, 2011 at 10:41 AM
This is really very interesting. I would not have recognized that chunk of glass as anything. I hope more treasures develop by your work.

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