Photo Detective: Maple Sugaring Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

No childhood in New England is complete without a sampling of maple sugar candy sold in the shape of maple leaves. While it resembles the syrup poured on pancakes and waffles, the candy is even sweeter and a New England tradition. This week, Joanne Gonsalves submitted a picture of what I suspect is a man returning from the forest with two buckets of maple sap.

Maple sugaring is a labor-intensive process that can be done only in certain conditions. Bruce Bascom of Bascom’s Maple Farm in Alstead, N.H., says the ideal conditions are temperatures around 40 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 20 to 25 degrees at night. In western Massachusetts, the season runs from late February to early April as long as the temperatures remain steady. The leaf-less trees in the background and the lack of heavy overcoats on the people in this picture suggest early spring.

Originally, Native Americans and early colonists gathered the sap in wooden buckets and boiled it to make maple sugar, which could be stored through the year. Today, sap is collected in metal buckets or with plastic tubing, but maple syrup production still requires time to boil the sap into syrup. The results can be discouraging with approximately 45 gallons of sap yielding only a gallon of syrup. The Massachusetts Maple Sugar Producers, a non-profit organization that promotes the history and production of maple syrup and sugar, has additional information online.

When conditions were right, individuals would travel into the forest, cutting holes in maple trees and attaching containers to collect the sap. Periodically, they would check the containers, empty sap into buckets and carry them back for the final process of boiling and refining. Generally, men carried two buckets at a time to balance their load; otherwise travel through the snowy fields could be difficult. The gentleman in this picture is carrying two buckets—one overhand, one underhand. While the design of buckets varied, his are unusually shaped.

Gonsalves thinks this picture was taken in either Massachusetts or New Hampshire. The specific location is a mystery. The house has a distinctive shape and style, suggesting it was designed by an architect for a wealthy family. The man in the picture could be the owner, but is probably one of the men employed to work the estate. At the turn of the century, many affluent families bought or built country estates in New England to work as “gentlemen farmers.”

The style of the children’s clothing suggests the turn of the century to 1920, but there is no particular detail in the image that helps pinpoint a year. The boys are wearing knickers with short jackets. The one on the left has a coat with a double row of brass buttons. The little girl is dressed for play with a short skirt, heavy stockings and short boots.

The camera angle in this candid photograph suggests it was taken by either someone at about the same height as the children, perhaps another child, or a kneeling adult. In either case, it was taken using one of the amateur cameras on the market during the early 20th century and pasted into a family album. The mottling visible in the picture is a result of the glue used to attach the thin paper print to the surface of the album.

Gonsalves may discover who is in the picture, or at least who took it, by examining the album for clues. If one person is absent from several candid family photographs, he or she might have been the family photographer. Since this picture is part of a larger family collection, the answer may be in one of the other pictures.

If anyone recognizes the house in this photograph, please contact me. Thank you for your help.