Memorial Day Tribute in 1918

By Maureen A. Taylor

A quick search for Memorial Day photos on the Library of Congress website turned up this image. According to the cataloging record, the original was a glass negative, and on the envelope was a note suggesting this was taken by the National Photo Company on Memorial Day 1918. It’s a posed press photo of what seems to be a significant event.

The letters on the women’s sashes caught my attention. Downloading a high-resolution version of the photo from the Library of Congress website revealed the letters L, U, S, I, T:

My mind immediately thought about the significance of the day and year of this image.

  • Memorial Day, a holiday that honors service men and women who died in the Armed Forces. Today it’s the last Monday in May. Originally called Decoration Day, after the Civil War this day was set aside to decorate graves with flowers. In 1918, Memorial Day was May 30, a Thursday.
  • In 1918, the world was battling in the First World War.
  • What event helped to turn the tide of American opinion against Germany, eventually pushing the United States into the war? The sinking of the RMS Lusitania, May 7, 1915. The women’s sashes likely spell the ship’s name.

Searching for keywords relating to Memorial Day and Luisitania with the year 1918 on subscription newspaper website GenealogyBank gave me the answer. Bingo! This mostly unidentified photo now has a story.

On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the RMS Luisitania, an ocean liner returning to Europe with close to 2,000 passengers and crew on board. Bestselling author Erik Larson featured the tragedy and the events surrounding the sinking in his 2015 book, Dead Wake. Here’s a panoramic photo of the ship at anchor in New York harbor in September 1907 for its maiden voyage. It shows the scale of this vessel compared to everything else on the waterfront that day. You’ll find more images of the ship on Wikipedia.

Some of the women in the first photo sit within a large wreath. It was one of two of the wreaths made for the Memorial Day ceremony. The story appeared in papers across country including the Riverside Daily Press (Riverside, Calif.), May 30, 1918:

Down on the peaceful Potomac two gigantic rose wreaths were set adrift, markers for the graves of the Lusitania dead. Daughters of the American Revolution launched the first: the crew of a British warrior the second.

In the photo appear both the members of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the crew of the British warrior. They posed for the picture before they set the wreaths in the water.

Identifying the details and the story behind this picture required studying the clues: sashes and the history of the period. The answer was in the news.

How did your ancestors celebrate Memorial Day? Read local historical newspapers to learn more about the special events in which they participated. Using the details mentioned in those articles, go through your family photos looking for matches.

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