At the margin

ABA album for VB
My grandmother’s album.

One of the joys of old photographs is the occasional detail, the one that hovers at the margin, away from the central feature of the image. Looking through one of my grandmother’s albums – helpfully marked “Vol. 1,” although I’m not sure there are any subsequent ones in the series – I’m struck by the horses and cars (even the occasional ostrich) that coexist with the people peopling the photographs. My grandmother’s family was considered very “horsey,” and they were happy to be associated with their powerful cars – and I think there is a bit of a story to be found in these images.

Anne and Theo in California in 1915 for VB
Anne and Theo Ayer in California, 1915.

The earliest image shows my grandmother and great-aunt[1] riding an ostrich in California. It is marked 1915, when Aunt Theo was nine and Grandmother was about seven. My great-grandparents[2] used to go out west in the winter with my great-great-grandparents,[3] and I’ve seen letters about their visits to the Banning and Patton cousins in Pasadena. For my grandmother, a native of Boston, these California trips must have seemed quite exotic, and the ostrich ride seems like the icing on the cake.

Family touring in Mexico for VB
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fanning Ayer with their daughters Anne and Theodora.

One of my favorite photos of the Ayer family is this one, showing my great-grandparents with their daughters visiting Baja California. The photographer has helpfully provided signage to advertise his services.

Fancy Dress at the New Riding Club on Greylegs 1916 for VBThis photo, from 1916, shows my grandmother riding Greylegs for a fancy dress event at the New Riding Club in Boston.





Mama at some point in her career for VB
Theodora Ilsley Ayer (1881-1945).

The next image dates from the late 1910s, I’d say, or early 1920s. My grandmother has captioned it “Mama, at some point in her career,” which suggests they had a fairly sophisticated parent-child relationship.



Mama and Edith in their gondola in Venice in 1924 with Giovanni at the helm for VB
Venice, 1924.

In 1924, my great-grandmother took her daughters and a friend (Edith Woodward) to Europe. Here they are in Venice, and my grandmother’s focus is on the handsome gondolier: she has captioned the photo “Mama and Edith in their gondola … with Giovanni at the helm.”

The Hispano at Carnac 1926 for VBTwo years later, my grandmother visited France with a chaperone. While she took a number of photos of the group in which she traveled, my grandmother was careful to photograph their chauffeur (“Albert at Carnac”) and their Hispano-Suiza touring car: “The Hispano at Carnac 1926.”

TIA up for VBFinally, here is another image of my great-grandmother, identified by her initials: “T.I.A. up.” As a general rule, the photos in this album contain a member of the Ayer family, a horse or a dog, and – as we’ve seen here – some sort of motor vehicle/ostrich/gondola. The thing at the margin has moved to center stage.


[1] Anne Beekman Ayer (1908–1947) and Theodora Ayer (1905–1996).

[2] Charles Fanning Ayer (1865–1956) was married to Sara Theodora Ilsley 1904–45 and to Anne Phillips in 1946.

[3] Frederick Ayer (1822–1918) was married to Cornelia Wheaton 1858–78 and to Ellen Barrows Banning in 1884; a complicated series of marriages connected the Ayer, Banning, and Patton families, even before Frederick and Ellen’s daughter Beatrice married George Smith Patton, Jr., in 1910.

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

7 thoughts on “At the margin

  1. What a great post! You combined several of my favorite topics (horses, dogs, and genealogy) and piqued my interest with the ostrich photos. I have seen several photos from the same era with people on stuffed horses (as well as the famed pony pics where photographers would take ponies to more urban areas to sell pictures of the local children on ponies) and so I wondered about whether the ostrich was stuffed. Did a little research and found that indeed the photos are most likely of people on stuffed ostriches. Thanks for the interesting info.

  2. Love these old photos, from my maternal Grandmother’s memorabilia are several of her maternal Uncle driving horses, then early vehicles, taking family for a ride. It clearly shows that change over, all that generation were able to drive anything they put their hand to and repair it if it broke down:)

  3. It is highly unlikely that the ostrich was stuffed. The South Pasadena Library has other pictures similar to the one shown. As was stated the Ostrich Farm was a huge attraction when ostrich feathers were in vogue. At one point they received more mail than any other address in ‘California

    1. I understand it was a hugely popular and successful ostrich farm and tourist spot. I just believe that it would be difficult to have that many trained/cooperative ostriches that would stand still to have their pictures taken. “Many of the ostriches upon which people sat for their photographs were, in fact, stuffed – otherwise they would surely have given a few of the visitors a painful peck (”

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