Keziah Whitson Coles’ 1870 photo album brought back to life

There’s a long tradition of crappy photographers in my family. Great grandmother Edna was a pioneer of bad photography with her 1900 box camera mirror photo, presaging the selfie by over a century. Her son, Valentine (Coles), inherited the bad photographer gene, and proceeded to marry my grandmother, who was possibly the worst of the bunch. All three loved to take loads of bad photos, had multiple copies produced to ensure posterity, and never discarded a single image, no matter how bad. My mother had the great sense to break this cycle by marrying my father, who clearly had both talent and enthusiasm for photography. Dad went so far as to set up a dark room in our home, where he produced terrific images from the early 1960s until 1974, when my mother’s blossoming schizophrenia drove him to abandon it, along with many of his other ambitions in life.

Edna Valentine selfie circa 1905

Selfie pioneer Gr-Grandma Edna

As the self-appointed family chronicler of my generation, the spoils of decades of poor photography have found their way to my garage and home office (my genealogical man-cave). Over the past few years, I’ve culled the herd from well over 2,000 terrible images down to several hundred worthy of digitizing, more for their unique content (i.e. obscure, distant relatives) than their composition or technical quality (usually poor). During this time, I’ve grown wary of unearthing new boxes of old family prints, negatives, or albums of largely crummy photos.

With this long history of horrid family photos, the discovery of another old photo album immediately brought with it the dread of yet another collection of blurred, random, duplicate images unworthy of more than a cursory glance. But a closer look at the tooled red leather cover with brass buckles hinted this was something special, older and more elegant than anything I had seen in the family collection. Inside were 30 pages of carte de vista (CDV) photograph slots, filled with 58 carefully annotated professional portrait CDVs and tintypes.

isabelle and joseph brown on the beach at wading river long island

Tilt camera – check. Out of focus – check. Cut-off subject – check. Another typical family photo.

The album was assembled between 1860 and 1870 by Keziah Whitson Coles Valentine, then in her 50s. It is very much a family photo album of its day, beginning with photos of her husband’s aging parents, uncles and aunts (all born in the late 18th century), her own family, and many nieces, nephews, and cousins, all photographed in New York and Brooklyn studios. The album closes with the newest family member, her first grandson, John Hampton Valentine, who was born in 1867. Most of the subjects lived and/or were born on Long Island, primarily in the Glen Cove, Oyster Bay area. Unlike the many other 19th and 20th century family albums filled with scores of unidentified ancestors, nearly every image had long ago been annotated in pencil by Keziah’s granddaughter, Edna, and any negative judgment I might have had about the album being defaced was outweighed by the gratitude for the information it contained.

Here’s a slideshow of Keziah’s album. As much as photography has changed over the years, it offers a peek into how a grandmother collected and organized family memorabilia in a manner not too different from today. Or if you’d like to know more about the subjects and view the photos individually, skip down below the slideshow and click on the next page for the full-gallery:

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Hugh D Byrne

About Hugh D Byrne

Genealogy is a hobby, and this site is primarily a vehicle for publishing my family's research (along with occasional random thoughts on other topics). I enjoy hearing from others researching related lines, and site feedback/suggestions are always welcomed and appreciated.

9 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for sharing these priceless images. I’m from Glen Cove myself, and my paternal grandmother was Mary Gertrude Coles, who was descended from Daniel Coles, one of the original proprietors of Musketa Cove in 1668.

    1. Hi Gary,

      Thanks so much for your note. I scanned and posted this years ago, and have rarely heard from any relations, so I’m glad it was of interest to you.

      Confirming you descend from Isaac Coles (1817 – 1897). I don’t have any info on Mary Gertrude, and would be grateful for any details you can provide on your line. My info on Isaac and descendants is here: http://byrnefamily.net/genealogy/getperson.php?personID=I1397&tree=ByrneAsimov

      Have had the pleasure of visiting the history room at the Glen Cove library. In addition to our shared ancestor, Daniel Coles, I also descend from Nathaniel and Robert, providing further evidence Long Island was a tight-knit community in the 18th century.

      1. Hugh: Mary Gerrtrude Coles (she always went by Gertrude) was the only child of Thomas Hewlett Coles + Sallie Emma Pancoast, the daughter of Dr. Seth & Sallie (Osborn) Pancoast of Philadelphia.

        Thomas was the oldest child of Isaac & Mary (Willets) Coles, but he died young (just age 45) for reasons that I have yet to learn. Gertrude and her mother continued to live in the Coles family home at 7 The Place in Glen Cove. I think that Franklin and Oscar Coles were co-equal heads-of-households.

        Robert Reed Coles was the only child of Franklin A & Carolyn (Reed) Coles, so he was my grandmother’s first cousin, and they grew up in the same house.

        My grandmother married Stanley J Donaldson (Sr.), the son of J. Edward + Mary (Nixon) Donaldson of Cincinnati/Ludlow, KY. Edward Donaldson came to Glen Cove as a vice president of the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company of NYC, the developer of pioneering roller coasters My grandparents rest in the Quaker burial ground at Matinecock Meeting in Locust Valley, Long Island.

        1. Thanks for the info, Gary. I will add it to my data. My data on Thomas is obviously pretty cursory. Fascinating history, and such deep roots you have in Glen Cove, with its rich and beautiful history! I visited the Matinecock Meeting and burial grounds a few years back to look at headstones, as well as Friends Academy, where my grandfather and gr-grandmother both attended (class of 1926 and 1900).

          1. Gary. I do have those books (purchased them from the GC Public library when I visited the Robert Reed Coles archive). Love the photos on your smugmug page — fascinating.

  2. Hello! Thank you for posting these photos! I am descended from Henry Whitson (born ca. 1775) who lived in Lancaster Co., PA and married Barbara Brosey. Our DNA traces back to the Henry Whitson who was on Long Island in the 1600s, but the generations in the middle are a mystery. Do you have any additional information about this Whitson line?

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Melissa,

      Thanks for your note. I’ll confess the Whitson’s are one of many gaps in my research data. I went scouring through family notes and found a transcription my gr-grandmother had made from a family bible, which may be of interest, and reflect my Whitson line. I also found Henry Whitson in Hempstead circa 1647, and while the lines are undoubtedly related, my line does not appear to descend directly from him.

      “Copied from the family record in the Bible of Phebe Whitson Cromwell, the copy given me by Miss Phebe Valentine — Edna Valentine Bruce

      Marriages:

      Thomas Whitson the first, settled in Bethpage, Long Island m. Martha Jones
      Henry Whitson son of Thomas m. Hannah Powel the 5th of 7th mo 1739
      Henry Whitson son of Henry m. Clemmy Underhill 14th of 8th mo 1774
      Phebe Whitson dau of Henry Jr. m. John Cromwell 18th of 11th mo 1825
      …then follow other marriages of the Whitson family (not included in letter)

      Births:
      Thomas Whitson 1st was born in England 20th of 7th mo 1652
      His Children:
      Thomas Whitson was b 5th of 7th mo 1689
      Martha Whitson was b 27th of 6th mo 1691
      Ruth Whitson was b 24th of 2nd mo 1694
      John Whitson was b 19th of 2nd mo 1697
      Rebecca Whitson was b 24th of 6th mo 1699
      David Whitson was b 11th of 7th mo 1701
      Henry Whitson was b 21st of 4th mo 1705

      Deaths:
      Thomas Whitson the first d. 20th of 8th mo 1742
      Hannah Whitson, wife of Henry d 15th of 8th mo 1787 aged 81 yrs 10 mo 21 da
      Henry Whitson Sr. d. 7th mo 1790 aged 85 yrs
      Kezia Coles dau of Henry W. sr. 7th of 7th mo 1787
      Martha Whitson dau of Henry 2nd d 2nd of 10th mo 1791
      Clemmy (Clemence?) Whitson wife of Henry 2nd d 6 of 10th mo 1809
      Henry Whitson 2nd d. 1st of 11th mo 1810
      Hannah, dau of Henry 1st d. 4th of 10th mo 1823
      Phebe W. Cromwell d 16th of 7th mo 1860 (the first owner & recorder of this bible)
      There are other names and dates but of more recent times”

      Other than that, I don’t have any info immediately at hand.

      Best,
      Hugh

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