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Modern Family: 1914

Modern Family: 1914

        The globular tree, the unhinged affect, the undercurrent of barely suppressed rage -- yes, it's our annual holiday missive from the family of Washington lawyer Raymond Dickey! MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL.

"Dickey tree, 1914." Our fifth Christmas visit with the family of Washington lawyer Raymond Dickey, whose portraits mix equal parts Chekhov and Addams with a dash of Dickens. National Photo Company glass negative. View full size.


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Merry Christmas!

Ah the much-maligned many unanswered questions.

Were they happy? Sad? Well-to-do or just middle class?
Did the father drink? Was the mother upset to find out after the picture developed that the tree had pushed her collar up, making her appear somewhat disheveled? Why did the photographer not think to warn her?

And what of the perennially over-sized and over-grown tree? Can we even call it a tree? Or is it a large Christmas bush? Why such a tight fit, year after year? Were tape measures luxury items?

One thing is for certain : their appearance on the Shorpy front page means the Earth has made another revolution around the sun.

Merry Christmas Shorpy-ites!

Different interpretation

I don't see unhappiness at all. You don't see people smiling in a lot of old photographs, but it doesn't mean they're unhappy. Personally, I like seeing people with natural looks on their faces and not phony smiles.

Mrs. Dickey

She’s got the thousand-yard stare. Persist, endure, stay the course. Resistance is futile. She knows the drill. And she knows it all gets worse the more Mr. Dickey pulls out that flask of his.

Angry dad

This is possibly the most depressing series on Shorpy. There are ten different years and poses, and I’ve commented about it before, but I can’t shake the feeling that we have a stern, likely mean father here who gives everybody what-for just in advance of the photo. Jabbing a forefinger in their faces, cigar tip frighteningly close, he warns them not to act up. Straighten up and fly right. Don’t make me put down my cigar. Behave or there’ll be hell to pay. Y’know, friendly stuff like that, the kind of thing that puts you in the proper festive mood for the annual Christmas photo.

Dilated pupils not surprising

The enlarged ornament image shows the Dickeys were sitting in a dimly lit room. The photographer squeezed a bulb to open the camera's diaphragm, or maybe just removed a cap over the lens and then ignited flash powder, creating an instantaneous blast of light. The camera was loaded with an emulsion-coated glass plate. Its light sensitivity was a fraction of that coated onto roll film for use in snapshot cameras decades later. That sudden ball of light lit the room very brightly in a fraction of a second. It happened so fast the family members' eyes were caught wide open, as they needed to be in a dimly lit room to be able to see. In the aftermath, they probably experienced an aftereffect ghost image of that blast of light for several minutes. If the photographer made several exposures, some or all of the subjects probably experienced discomfort along with the annoying ghost image. And that ghost image might've obscured their vision for an extended period, because the effect is cumulative. If so, the Dickeys' lack of festive gaiety becomes understandable.

Somewhat less-traumatic flashbulbs became available in the 1930's, thanks to General Electric. The early ones were big compared to those in use in the 1940's through the 1960's, when the peanut-sized AG-1 bulbs became available. As film emulsions became more light sensitive, flashbulbs could become smaller, easier to carry and handle, and less expensive.

The Looks of This Family

They look like they're having their own personal 2020, one hundred and six years before ours! Merry Christmas to all and may we all meet after the New Year!

Looking Around the Web

Some information on Granville Dickey’s life is at the following website (he’s the kid on the far left in the picture with the freckles):

Granville's Adventure

The link that mentions Granville seems not to work, but I found the story in the Washington Herald.

"We'll Win Pennant," Says Granville Dickey

Ten-year Old Lad, Seized with Baseball Fever, Is Brought Home After Runaway Trip to Charlottesville, Va.

According to the article, Granville "had a talk with Griff" (that would be Washington Nationals manager, and later owner, Calvin Griffith) after hopping a train to Charlottesville to visit spring training.

Granville went on to say, "One of things that interested me most was the way the Cubans, Calvo and Acosta, are tearing up the diamond. You bet Griff isn't going to let them go. Calvo is as quick as a cat and it's wonderful the way he can get around the bases." Jacinto (Jack) Calvo played just 34 games in his major league career, batting .161 and stealing no bases. I can find no record of Acosta.

My Christmas journey 2020

Shorpy has given me the appropriate destination for an end-of-year trip: the grave of Granville E. Dickey (on the left, holding the ornament), in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland, less than ten miles from my house.

Granville's future: He studied journalism at Northwestern University, where he was an all-American swimmer (backstroke). He was briefly (1925) the writer for the newspaper comic "Men Who Made the World." He married La Verne Carnes in 1928, but divorced her in 1941 on grounds of desertion; he married again, to Ceril Cousins, who died in 1945.

He worked in advertising in Chicago, then in Washington in the 1930s as chief statistician of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1941, he testified before a Congressional hearing on wildlife conservation.

Granville died at 45, leaving a daughter, Rosemary--likely named for his mother, whom the sources identify as Rose M.

This was a life.

A family tradition

I've looked at the collection of Christmas pictures of this clan, and I need to know why did they buy a tree too tall for their home and just jam it in?

Where to begin

I have studied this photograph before but apparently not well enough. What is with the creepy ornaments? Far left, a great big bug; hanging between the older two children's heads, a weird face; what's above and to the right of the weird face -- a genie released from a bottle? Lots of strange-looking heads ... and speaking of heads, there appears to be a fish hanging off of Mr. Dickey's.

Mrs. Dickey's pupils are dilated to match the buttons on her dress. Big brother put his coat on so fast, the collar is twisted and one of his lapels is bent under. Nobody saw that? Why is he holding up a Santa head, and what's in his other hand? Sister is either traumatized by the whole event, or the only one who knows what's really going down. The mini-cossack baby is semi-catatonic. Why does Mother have a tense fist jammed into his thigh?

They all seem dusty, unkempt, tired, jaded, and demoralized. Or maybe they've just consumed too many Christmas cookies.

He's a member of the intelligencia

Fountainpen in breast pocket of coat - check - necktie on -check. Yup, he's not one of the Great Unwashed.

[Or perhaps he's a member of the intelligentsia. - Dave]

Dickey Family

From left-to-right: Granville (a year after running away to watch baseball), Alice (future fashion magazine editor), Rose, John and Raymond.

Cash for Christmas

Those ornaments would be worth big money today.

A beachy Christmas

So I am wondering if they picked up the flamingo ornament at Colonial Beach.

Ornamental reflections

looking closely at the ornaments I was amazed to see and recognise many that were still in use by my mother and grandmother well into the 1970s, when alas the very thin glass they were made from gave way apparently all at once. I remember lifting the boxes down from their storage place and finding that despite being wrapped in tissue as they had been every year of my life, virtually every one of them had shattered. As my own kids were small then, we replaced them with the plastic variety common today.

My grandmother had used her set on an outdoor tree (in Australia, it used to be common in the 60s to decorate an outdoor tree), and the ornaments that had been outside had faded unevenly. I wish I still had a few of the ornaments now, but alas they are long gone.


That the two oldest children seem to be emulating the expressions on ornaments hanging near them -- directly to the left of the boy, and above the girl. Maybe that's how you were supposed to look at Christmas.

The Look

The little girl has exactly the same expression my wife has whenever I screw up. Which is hardly ever. No really.

But they have such lovely presents.

Along the back wall, on the left, appears various toy houses, kitchens, etc.
And on the right there looks to be the business end of a rocking horse?

I love all the ornaments, especially the one the boy is holding. I'd find it quite sweet too, if only there was just a hint of a smile on his face.

What might this be?

At the very right of the photo just above the father's arm is something that looks to be a ponytail. It looks like human hair. Wonder what it is?

[A toy horse's, um, tail. - Dave]

"Young man, straighten your collar!"

"You don't want people ninety-seven years from now thinking you're a slob!"

I note that the ornament he's holding shows up next to mom in the 1922 picture.


As always I find the fascinating aspect of these pics is the details unintentionally revealed in the reflections in the ornaments.

I Spy

- a little pinecone guy; like yours, tterrace.

Say "cheese"!

Photographers evidently hadn't yet discovered that back in those days.

Spirits of Christmas

Dad appears to have a large flask in the inside pocket of his suit coat.

Shiny balls

Hey Dave can you enlarge the dark Christmas bulb to the left of the picture, halfway between the bottom of the tree and the banner on the wall? I think you can get a nice reflection of the room and the cameraman's feet. Thanks!

(A user speculates: the assistant setting off the flash.)

Keep it down, folks!

Obviously the Grinch paid a visit just before this photo was taken.

Ornaments with faces.

The kid is holding a Santa ornament, reminds me of the Pine Cone with a face in tterrace's photo.

Another similarity, an ornament with a reflection of an arched opening.


Forget about Merry; are they even Happy?

[You know what Tolstoy said about happy families. - Dave]

Is it just me

but no one seems happy!

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