Caption Confusion in a Foreign Photo

Caption Confusion in a Foreign Photo

Caption confusion is a common condition. You may suffer from it. The main symptoms are squinty eyes and a headache from trying to figure out what someone wrote on a picture years ago. You can't read the handwriting or follow the cryptic clues. Maybe you discover that what's written isn't...

Caption confusion is a common condition. You may suffer from it. The main symptoms are squinty eyes and a headache from trying to figure out what someone wrote on a picture years ago. You can’t read the handwriting or follow the cryptic clues.

Maybe you discover that what’s written isn’t a caption at all—one of your ancestors used the back of the photo as a notepad or to practice their sums.

If you think that’s enough to drive you mad, think about Debra Allison’s dilemma: The caption is in a foreign language and she’s received not one or two translations, but four.

Last week’s blog post examined the clues on the front of the picture, which dated the picture to the 1880s. Now it’s time for the reverse side.

Let’s start with the photographer’s imprint.

George Schaffer operated his studio in Oberotterbach (Pfalz), a municipality in western Germany. This clue could narrow down who’s in the picture if only part of the family lived there, but that’s not the case in Debra’s family. They all lived in the area.

Three different scripts appear on the back, including a ballpoint translation of the German written in fountain pen, and a pencil caption. A granddaughter of the original owner added “Grossie’s Mother, Father & Sisters & Brother.” Grossie was a nickname for Debra’s great-grandmother, Antoinette/Nettie Fichter.

Which of the following translations is correct? If anyone reads German, please add your translation in the comment field below this article.

  • “To the niece of the mother’s sister.”
  • “To the nice mother of the nun.” [This one is definitely incorrect. While the family was Catholic, no one was a nun.]
  • “on [to?] the Nettie the Mother her sister.”

The family was also told the caption states that the picture was given to someone to give to another person.

Caption confusion indeed!

Debra has created tables for all the possible ancestors in this picture, with their life dates and places of birth and death. One thing is certain: This is not a picture of Antoinette with her mother and siblings—the life dates don’t add up.

So who’s in the picture? Debra and I have some ideas. Watch for the third installment of this photo mystery next week.


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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    6 Comments

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    1. Just stumbled upon your blog and thought I might add something to this post:
      The German is written in Suetterlin font, and reads "An die Nette der Mutter ihre Schwester"
      Actually this does not make too much sense in modern German, it might be influenced by the local dialect. The ballpoint translation is not too bad, only the "On" should be a "To". It could be translated with "To the Nette, her mother’s sister" which could indicate Nettie’s aunt as sender of the picture.
      Maybe this helps 🙂

      Alex

    2. Susanna Rosalie

      I agree with Alex, that the ballpoint translation on the photo is almost correct exept for the "On", which should be "To". The person who wrote down the German sentence wrote it as she or he would speak it. It is not a dialect, it is just, I would say, a false grammar in spoken language, quite commonly used. It means: "To Nette, mother’s sister."

      To me, the conclusion is: The sentence means an assignment. Whoever holds the photo is supposed to give it to Nette. Nette is most likely the abbreviation of Antoinette, similiar to Nettie. The person who wrote the German sentence is the child of the mother in the photo and knows that there is a sister of her/his mother, called Nette. So Nette is the aunt of the writer.
      Which means also, that Nette cannot be in the photo. So I agree with what you found out by adding up on the life dates.

      So in Germany, the Nickname for Antoinette was Nette and probably not Grossie. My idea on "Grossie": it could be the minimization of "Grosse/Große", meaning a tall female.

      One more thing: The name of the photographer is not "Schaffer", it is "Schäffer" (Schaeffer).

      Well, I am looking forward to the next post! Hope this was of help.
      Greetings from Germany,
      Susanna Rosalie

    3. Grossie would have been a shortened form of Grossmuetter meaning grandmother. (I have spend many hours trying to decipher similar captions with the same kind of nicknames!) So Nette is probably the family nickname for Antoinette.

    4. I had some more thoughts on the nicknames. I was wrong assuming that "Grossie" is a minimization.

      I think that "Nettie" and "Grossie" are the anglicized versions of "Nette" and of "Große/Grosse". In German the "e" at the end sounds like the "e" in the word "letter". And because of the pronunciation in English the names also got changed when written down.

      "Große/Grosse" has the meaning of "tall female, tall woman" and maybe there were tall women in the family?! (It can also have the meaning of "the great" like "Catherine the Great", "Katharina die Große".) It looks as if the woman in the photo standing next to the man and the boy had been quite tall.

      Concerning Leslie’s comment: I have never heard of "Grossie" beeing a short version of "Großmutter", not in German though.

      Greetings from Germany,
      Susanna Rosalie