Captions Past and Present: Solving the Great Mysteries Before they Happen!

I work with photographs almost every day. Often, I’m faced with drafting captions for historic images and too often I find historic prints without adequate information.

Back in the day some conscientious photographer made the effort to preserve a scene. When they went out the reason for their photograph was often brutally obvious (to them).

Maybe a new locomotive was working the daily express, or the local passenger train was running late. Perhaps an old machine was nearly ready for the scrap heap, or something special was on the move.

Or maybe it was just a nice day to be out, and the photographer wanted to document the railroad action.

Here we have a nice photo of a nearly new 4-4-0. With a little bit of footwork I was able to discover that it was an Illinois Central engine. The location, date, and specific significance of the image at the time of exposure are a mystery (to me anyway). There is no information on the print. Even the photographer has been forgotten. The print is from my collection.
Here we have a nice photo of a nearly new 4-4-0. With a little bit of footwork I was able to discover that it was an Illinois Central engine. The location, date, and specific significance of the image at the time of exposure are a mystery (to me anyway). There is no information on the print. Even the photographer has been forgotten. The print is from my collection. A simple caption such as: JL Jones and crew pose with new 934 at Podunk, Mississippi, February30, 1879 would have been helpful (hold on sherlock, I made up that caption to serve as  potential example. So, it is pure fiction, not speculation— thus the date).

Holding an un-captioned photo may present many mysteries that could have been easily answered at the time of exposure. But the photographer passed on and the significance of the moment has been forgotten; the railroad was merged out of existence decades ago and the location has changed beyond recognition.

And so here I am trying to solve a mystery. Often, I can figure things out. But not always.

There maybe clues, but will they help? If you could find the location today, you might see that the double track line in the old print was reduced to single iron and the old station was bulldozed years ago, the mills in the distance are now the site of a shopping plaza, and trees have grown up everywhere.

My late-friend Robert A. Buck was a stickler for caption photographs. Time, date, location, train number, engine number and class, engineer’s name, and so one.
My late-friend Robert A. Buck was a stickler for captioning photographs. Time, date, location, train number, engine number and class, engineer’s name, and so on.

A captioned photograph is vastly more useful, more valuable, and more relevant than an uncaptioned print. Never assume that the viewer, or even the photographer himself/herself will remember the details. The passage of time tends to blur those things that once seemed obvious.

Here we have a wee bit of information. CV is for Cumberland Valley (not Central Vermont). The locomotive is a PRR Class H6b, engine number 190. A quick search of a PRR roster will reveal details about the engine. Also, we know it was exposed on February 2, Ground Hog Day, but the exact year is unknown. The men in the photo are obviously the crew, and knowledge of their uniforms will give you an ideas as to their positions and roles; Engineer, Conductor, Fireman, Brakeman flagman, etc. But who are they? Where are we? Why? Who was the photographer? What was the significance of this image at the time? Mysteries, so far as I'm concerned.
Here we have a wee bit of information. CV is for Cumberland Valley (not Central Vermont). The locomotive is a PRR Class H6b, engine number 101. A quick search of a PRR roster will reveal details about the engine. Also, we know it was exposed on February 8 or August 2, but the exact year is unknown. The men in the photo are obviously the crew, and knowledge of their uniforms and tools will give you an ideas as to their positions and roles; Engineer, Conductor, Fireman, Brakeman flagman, etc. But who are they? Where are we? Why? Who was the photographer? What was the significance of this image at the time? Mysteries, so far as I’m concerned.

A solution for future photos: take the time to write information on the images photos you make. If you caught something special, explain in detail. Never assume.

Be sure to include specifics regarding locations. Avoid potentially cryptic abbreviations.

Don’t make things up! Try to be as accurate as possible without wildly speculating as to important details such as date and location.

Don’t wait until you have 100,000 photographs that span 25 years to begin your task.

We know that this is a Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington railcar and trailer. It looks relatively new. All other information is a mystery (there's nothing on my print, not even the photographer's name.) The photo is from my collection. Again I can speculate, but that's not the point. A little bit of information in the form of a caption would have gone a long way.
We know that this is a Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington railcar and trailer. It looks relatively new and the numbers are displayed, so a search of rosters will reveal builder information and possible disposition. All other information is a mystery (there’s nothing on my print, not even the photographer’s name.) The photo is from my collection. Again I can speculate as to the year, location, etc.,, but that’s not my point. I’m not trying to solve this mystery, but rather offer an example of how a little bit of information in the form of a caption on the print  would have gone a long way. Yet, what makes this photo fascinating to me is that its a rare example of a four-wheeled passenger vehicle built in the 20th century for an American railroad!

Beware: some time ago, an archivist told me that un-labeled photo collections are considered to be of low value to the historian. (His words were a bit stronger and involved trash receptacles).

A few final thoughts; when labeling old prints consider the type marker you use. Colored felt-tip pens are a very poor choice. For RC prints, consider a thin black permanent marker that won’t bleed, or a black ball-point pen with good action and ink that doesn’t smear. For paper prints a light pencil is a good choice, but don’t press down so hard that you damage the image area. Paste on labels are not good, eventually the glue will dry up (and fall off) and also the glue may bleed through. Digital images need captions too, but that’s a topic for another day.

More examples and more mysteries soon!

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4 thoughts on “Captions Past and Present: Solving the Great Mysteries Before they Happen!”

  1. Very interesting and informative. I like your pic of Bob Buck at “The Cross”. So many times I remember enjoying his company there, with the pictures, mags and articles he would bring to talk about. I still miss him….and the times you would join us!

  2. I recall Bob’s cursive hand writing. I assume he learned in Warren as a lad. This is another loss in the current age. TSH

  3. The cabooses in the IC picture are interesting. There seem to be at least three different designs among the five lined up. They might offer a clue to the cognoscenti.

    I assume RC prints have no religious significance!

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