Oh, Those Awkward Family Photos (c. 1940, Chicago)

For genealogists, one of the best parts of discovering living cousins (after simply learning you have them and meeting them, of course) is being introduced to family photos you’ve never seen before.

Such was the case for me last week.

That’s when I received a Facebook message from Anne, one of my east coast cousins in the Desmond line, whom I met online in 2011 and have kept up with ever since. Her message, which included a photo of a tarnished silver picture frame containing two photos from a bygone era, was short but arresting:

A newly discovered Desmond family photo provided by a cousin I met just seven years ago.

  “Have you seen these before? Sorry for sideways and low quality. Will take better photo during day.

My abbreviated response:

“No! I’ve never seen the one on the right before!”

I had a copy of the photo that resided in the left side of Anne’s picture frame, but I’d never seen the one on the right, and that one looked like it could be a real doozie.

It appeared to be an attempt to take a family portrait of the first four of my seven siblings, with our grandparents, our mother, and a family friend  around 1940 in Chicago—13 years before my brothers and I were added to the final collection of eight Desmond offspring.

For numerous reasons I was anxious to see an upright, clearer scan of that image so I could examine it more closely. Among them:

  • It was a family photo taken long before I was born.
  • I’m greedy to see more images of my Desmond grandparents. I never met them. Nellie died shortly before I was born and Owen died a few months after. I only know them through photos, family stories, and  research I’ve done over the past several years.
  • I also never knew my sisters when they (or I) were children. I wasn’t around when they were kids and they weren’t around when I was. They were grown and out of the house by the time my brothers and I were growing up in the 1960s and ’70s.
  • And lastly: I didn’t know my mother when she was a young woman. In fact, I had little time to know her at all.  She was 42 when I was born and she died 16 years later.

Needless to say, this was an image I awaited with much anticipation; and, as promised, Anne came through with a much clearer copy of that photo for me 24 hours later. (Thanks so much, Anne!)

So here it is. Take a look:

An “awkward” family treasure.

Even a non-family member can see that this is no ordinary family portrait. Rather, it’s what would be known today as an “awkward” family photo like some posted on social media to point out how clothing or hairstyles are vastly out-of-date, or the subjects photographed are posed in odd or bizarre ways.

Why wouldn’t this  photo qualify as “awkward” too, considering what’s going on here and how the eight people in it are configured?

In the front row are my grandparents, Owen Desmond (1861-1953) who’s seated on the left, and Nellie Keating Desmond (1868-1952) standing on the right.

Owen, about 79 at the time, is looking just like the successful, dignified, dapper patriarch he’s always appeared to be based on the snapshots we have of him in the family photo album. Nellie, wearing the same long coat worn in a different photo taken that  year for their 50th wedding anniversary, is standing sentry to the right.

Both of them are book-ending my two eldest sisters, Barbara Desmond, 4, (born 23 Mar 1936) and Diane Desmond 3, (born 19 Nov 1937) who are squeezed into a chair between them. (It’s quite subtle, but if you look closely, you’ll notice each grandparent has a hand on one side of that chair—presumably so it won’t topple over.)

It must have been a sunny day—or at least too sunny for Diane (in the chair on the right), as her hands are completely obliterating her eyes. Barbara (left of Diane) seems to agree that it was too bright out as she’s clearly squinting her eyes. As the oldest who just turned 4 though, she apparently realized she should at least attempt to look directly at the camera.

Now for the back row:

At left is our mother, Dorothy May Donar (1911-1970), a Chicago model in the early 1930s, well before babies were her daily reality. She’s holding—and apparently comforting—the youngest of the four girls, Colleen Desmond (born 5 Oct 1939), who appears to want no part of visually recording an image of the Desmond clan for posterity.

(May I please just digress a bit? What woman today has a figure like Mom’s after she delivered back-to-back babies, four years in a row, between the spring of 1936 and the fall of 1939? Clearly she kept the calories off just keeping up with those eight little legs and the places they carried them. I think it’s fairly safe to say that the only time our Mom had three other adults around to help her care for her four toddlers were on auspicious occasions like this one—a family photo–and  those opportunities for assistance probably lasted all of 60 to 90 seconds.)

But, back to the photo:

Back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder with our mom, is Hannah Hourihan (1887-1968), who seems to be successfully entertaining daughter #3, Dorothy Desmond (born 19 October 1938). Hannah, who was listed as a “servant” and “maid” on numerous U.S. censuses, lived with Owen and Nellie Desmond for over 40 years—from at least 1910 when my dad was an infant, through 1953.

Not in name, but certainly in spirit, Hannah was a full-fledged member of the Desmond clan, who, over time, went from serving as nursemaid to Nellie’s youngest children to serving the household in a variety of ways: cooking, shopping, and keeping house. And, as this photo shows—she went on to care for and enjoy many of Owen’s and Nellie’s grandkids over the decades that followed.

Hannah remained with our grandparents throughout their old age evolving from “servant” and “maid” into a beloved companion and member of the family until Owen and Nellie died in the early 1950s.

Other points of interest regarding this image:

  • Noticeably absent from this family photo is our father, Gerald Desmond (1909-1979), who I suspect may have been the photographer.
  • I’m also guessing the photo was taken in the spring of 1940 based on the age of the youngest child—Colleen—who was born in October 1939, and who appears here to be about 6 months old.
  • Today, more than 70 years later, my four sisters–the little girls in this photo–are  (on average) about the same age as their grandfather was when this picture was taken of all of them back in 1940.


Is this family photo a bit awkward looking? Oh, yes, of course–due  to much of what was explained above.

Is it revealing? Certainly.

It captures the essence of what young (and apparently, growing) families looked like decades before birth control was commonplace. It also provides a glimpse into the social history of America in the mid 20th century.  It illustrates what extended families—with grandparents and nursemaids—looked like in the 1940s for those that were fortunate enough (both financially and personally) to have grandparents and nursemaids in their lives.

But does this (awkward) photo qualify as a family treasure?



One. Hundred. Percent.

So thank you again, Anne, for passing on this treasure of  our personal family history to your Desmond cousins.

Perhaps I can return the favor some day with a photo I discover of ancestors in your branch of the Desmond family.

A more traditional family portrait of the Gerald and Dorothy Desmond family taken about 1944 before three boys and another girl were added to the brood.


Next up:

Irish Twins, Irish Triplets and maybe even more. Stay tuned…

Copyright © 2018 Patricia Desmond Biallas


This entry was posted in Biographies, Family Legends, Family Stories, Social History. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Oh, Those Awkward Family Photos (c. 1940, Chicago)

  1. Vincent Desmond says:

    Great find. Notice the ring on Grandpa’s right hand. Is it Dad’s ring or another?

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