Holiday Generosity and Christmas Clues in an Old Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

This little gem of a holiday picture comes from the Library of Congress collection. Researching the clues in this picture took a little time and involved studying the caption, the history of the image and the clues in photo. It’s a lot more than a holiday-themed image. This one picture tells the story of a family’s charity in a very wealthy community. It’s the perfect Christmas story.

This picture is half of a stereograph: two nearly identical photographs mounted side-by-side on cardstock. Viewing it through a stereopticon makes the image appear three-dimensional.

The best place to start untangling the clues was the caption: “LYNDHURST—A Happy Christmas at “Woody Crest,” December 1905. Copyright 1906 by Underwood & Underwood.”

Ben Underwood and his older brother Elmer were just 18 and 20 years old when they established their stereo view company, Underwood and Underwood, in 1880. Within a few years they had offices in Baltimore and Liverpool, England. According to Stereo Views by William Culp Darrah (Times and News Publishing), by 1901 the pair produced more than 7 million cards per year. They revolutionized the sale of cards by producing them in sets.

A quick Google search for Lyndhurst led me to a page about the house of that name in Tarrytown, NY. You can see gorgeous images of this Gothic Revival style estate and read about it’s history.

The Library of Congress cataloging record said the image was taken at the Lyndhurst School. There was no mention of the school on the site for the estate, so further research was necessary.

Only three families owned the house before it was donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1961. “Lyndhurst” was likely a keyword chosen by the Underwoods to draw attention to the image. The public was fascinated by the lives of these incredibly wealthy individuals.

In 1905, Miss Helen Miller Gould owned Lyndhurst. Her father was Jay Gould, a railroad entrepreneur who had a reputation as a robber baron profiting off the less fortunate. He made millions. His daughter, one of six children, was a very wealthy young woman. Helen briefly attended law school but decided against a public life. Instead, she focused on philanthropy.

Helen cared for and educated poor crippled children from the inner city at Woody Crest, a home at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. She had a reputation as a caring and intelligent woman. Volume 25 of Munsey’s Magazine (April to September 1901) featured a story on her charitable pursuits.

Every year at Christmas she provided a turkey dinner for Woody Crest residents. Dec. 25, 1905, the children turned the tables on their hostess and cooked her a dinner from food produced on the estate. They gave her a gift of a holly and evergreen wreath. You can see her presents to the boys in this picture.

She gave each of the 16 boys at Woody Crest a chest of “tools,” a miniature store, books, and Indian and police costumes. A Dec. 26, 1905, article in the Baltimore American reported details of the event in “Helen Gould’s Boys.” The writer compared her generosity to that of John D. Rockefeller. While he gave telephone and telegraph operators in Tarrytown $5 each, Gould gave them $10 each.

The center image shows off the paper bell hanging from the chandelier, the glass ornaments and trimmings on the tree.

Even Helen Gould’s millions had limits. In 1908, she had to decide which projects to continue. According to the Grand Forks Daily Herald, April 5, 1908, in “Helen Retrenches,” it was reported that she was going to stop summer outings for poor children at Woody Crest.

In 1913 at 45, Helen Miller Gould married Finley Johnson Shepard. The couple adopted three children, one of whom was a baby abandoned on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and had one foster child.

It’s a heartwarming story just in time for the holidays.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books 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
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album