Our Pictures Can Tell A Thousand Stories: Delaware History Detectives

We’ve all heard the expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” That is, that many complex ideas can be conveyed through a single image. But what if, at first glance, the image in front of you seems to carry no story at all? Or at least not one you can easily tease out?

The catalogers are working through the final series of the DHS Photograph Collection called “People.” If you think the title sounds very broad, you’d be right! The images in the series cover the mid-19th century to the present, span the state geographically, and in some cases take us internationally; it contains ordinary family photos as well as formal portraits of some of Delaware’s most influential residents. It’s also a series we thought would seem relatively boring next to “Natural Disasters” and “Science and Technology.” But tucked between the stuffy portraits, there are stories of the odd, fascinating, even scandalous individuals of Delaware’s past and present. Sometimes it just takes a bit of detective work…

I now present you with “Delaware History Detectives: Photo Edition, Pt. 1”


The Wedding

The Wedding Portrait of Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren

An adorable young girl dressed up as a bride. It must be Halloween! No? It’s all part of the Tom Thumb wedding craze that swept the nation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tom Thumb was the stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton, a dwarf who achieved celebrity status as a performer with P.T. Barnum’s circus. In 1863, he married Lavinia Warren, another dwarf, in a highly publicized ceremony. The event inspired a new kind of pageant where boys and girls dressed up and held pretend weddings. And of course Delaware got in on the cultural phenomenon! Here is Dorothy Mae DeShong elegantly dressed for her Tom Thumb wedding in 1920. In the course of writing this, we discovered an original carte de visite of the actual Tom Thumb wedding!! CDVs were small photographs mounted on thick cardboard which became very popular during the 1860s. They were inexpensive ways to obtain pictures of relatives fighting in the Civil War or of celebrities and politicians.


Dorothy Mae Deshone dressed for Tom Thumb's wedding


The Musician/Inventor

Mary Hallock Greenewalk, Inventor and Musician

Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt was the mother of Crawford H. Greenewalt, a chemical engineer who served on the board of the DuPont Co. At first glance, the three photos in our collection don’t tell us very much: a profile portrait of her as a young woman and two photos taken on a trip to South Africa in 1937. But who was she? Luckily, DHS has two folders of her manuscripts to help tell this story! Born in Syria, Greenewalt was an inventor with several patents to her name. She was also a musician interested in the relationship between color and sound. During the early 20th century, she designed a light play color organ. This art became known as Nourathar. A quick search of YouTube for “color organ” will show that this art is still very popular!


The Expatriate

Idina Sackville, Age 3

A portrait of Lady Myra Idina Sackville, the three-year-old daughter of Lady Muriel Agnes Brassey and Gilbert George Reginald Sackville, 8th Earl De La Warr. The title “Baron De La Warr” originated in 1299 and is the source from which our state derives its name.  During the 17th century, Thomas West became the Baron De La Warr. He served as the first governor of Virginia and the Delaware River was named for him. In 1761, the title “Earl De La Warr” was established. By time this photo was taken in 1896, the connection between the title and the state of Delaware existed in name only. So who is this young girl and what is her story? This one involved some internet research, but we discovered that Idina Sackville was one of the most notable members of the Happy Valley set, a group of aristocrats, who during the 1920s, took up residence in the British colonies of Africa. They were known for hosting wild parties which included spouse-swapping and drug use.  Sackville scandalized the public with her divorce from first husband Euan Wallace, even losing custody of her two sons. Over the next several decades she married and divorced three more times. Sackville died in 1955 at the age of 62.

 Well, that does it for the first edition of “Delaware History Detectives.” Stay tuned for more stories from our collections!!


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