1899: Introducing my Italian great-grandfather Peter D. Laurence (di Lorenzo)

Sepia Saturday 574. Genealogy Blog Party June 2021. First in a photo series on my maternal Italian  ancestors from Gloversville, Fulton County, New York.

Featuring photos of my maternal Italian ancestors from this Laurence-di Lorenzo-Curcio family album. Photo: Molly Charboneau

We all have bucket lists — and prominent on mine is to scan, preserve and share the large photo archive passed down from both sides of my family.

My maternal ancestors in particular — Italian and German immigrants and their descendants — sat for studio portraits in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which they likely sent to family back home as a way of staying connected.

Later, as popular photography emerged, casual portraits of my maternal and paternal ancestors at work and play also began to fill family albums.

Antique camera. Perhaps the time has come to let ancestral photos guide the narrative rather than the other way around. Photo: Pixabay

These photographs meant something to my ancestors. So perhaps the  time has come to let ancestral photos guide the narrative rather than the other way around —  starting with a photograph of my great-grandfather Peter Laurence [di Lorenzo]

Portrait of Peter Laurence [di Lorenzo]

For decades, a large studio portrait of my maternal Italian immigrant great-grandfather Peter Laurence hung on the dining room wall of my parents’ home. It was a colorized photo in a rectangular frame, and showed him sitting proudly in his Italian army uniform.

One of my siblings now has the large portrait, while I have a smaller black and white version of the same photograph — which happily contains some valuable notations.

Peter D. Laurence (aka di Lorenzo) in 1899, not long after his arrival in the U.S. Scan of family photo by Molly Charboneau

My maternal grandmother Elizabeth (Stoutner) Laurence — who married Peter’s oldest son Antonio — thoughtfully wrote Peter’s name on the front.

There is also a photographer’s mark — W. L. Havens, Gloversville — which does not appear on the larger, colorized portrait.

I had long assumed that the photograph was taken in Italy and that Peter brought it with him — but here is the proof that the photo was taken in the U.S.

Reverse-side clues

The back of the photo also contains details that help place Peter’s photo in context.

My great-grandfather’s name is printed in the center of the back as “Peter D. Laurence.” He was born Pietro di Lorenzo — and in this anglicized version of his name, he included a middle initial D in an apparent bow to his birth name.

Back of photo of Peter D. Laurence (aka di Lorenzo) showing an Oct. 21, 1899 date and printed name. Scan of family photo by Molly Charboneau

The back of the photo also includes a crucial date, Oct. 21, 1899 — which means it was taken three years after my great-grandfather’s 1896 arrival in the U.S. and the year before he first appeared in a U.S. census in 1900.

Peter appears confident and forward looking in this photograph, which may be the first one taken of him in Gloversville, Fulton County, N.Y. — his new U.S. home.

Yet he nostalgically hearkens back to his country of origin by posing in his Italian army uniform — which, incidentally, still fit him pretty well.

Amazing how much information can be contained in just one ancestral photograph! What will subsequent photos reveal?

Up next: More on Peter Laurence [di Lorenzo]. Please stop back! Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here. Then head on over to the June 2021 Genealogy Blog Party: “How You Did It” for valuable family history research techniques.

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18 thoughts on “1899: Introducing my Italian great-grandfather Peter D. Laurence (di Lorenzo)”

  1. Peter is quite distinguished looking in his uniform. You did an excellent job gleaning clues from the photo, which add details to the timeline of his life. Good luck on your digitization project. I’ve been there, done that and can guarantee that you will be thrilled once you have finished.

    1. Thanks, Linda. The digitization project is daunting, so I am glad to making my first steps toward getting it done.

  2. The reverse-side clue is terrific. How interesting that Peter had to complete his army service before being eligible to emigrate. And that he wore his uniform for this portrait!

  3. What an interesting photo…and I agree with all the comments of other Sepians. But I look forward to seeing what else you uncover with the photos that were kept and handed along to the present generation.

  4. Sepians have such observant eyes! I surely didn’t notice the checkered pants until Mike pointed them out. And we all have questions and more questions. I look forward to more photographs and any updates on Peter.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. I also noticed the checkered pants, but thought they might be an unusual aspect of the uniform. Leave it to Mr. Mike to provided the added info!

  5. Hi- Enjoyed your article. It caught my eye because I am working on a book about Italian Immigrants in Upstate NY 1875-1925. I would like it if you could email me

  6. Your great-grandfather’s portrait is a real treasure for sure, especially with the annotations. His tunic type might identify his unit like infantry or artillery but I think it is missing the collar buttons signifying rank or unit. The number of stripes on the cuffs are distinguishing elements for years of service or rank. Unfortunately sepia tones don’t translate important details like uniform colors, but your colorized photo would help fix that. His sleeve decorations make it look like a dress uniform but I think his checked pants are civilian wear. But then again, Italian military fashions were pretty flashy. It’s too bad his pose does not show the shoulder epaulets which might have a number for his regiment.

    I think Peter’s portrait makes a personal statement about his pride of military service. It’s not a picture of an immigrant escaping from years of mandatory army duty. I wonder if it was taken as a gift for someone back in Italy, either family or perhaps a former army comrade. Italy’s military history is quite complicated in this era, but I’m sure there are Italian resources that could help you pick out more clues from this photo.

    I like your opening thesis to let the photos guide the narrative. Some years ago another Sepia Saturday blogger, Brett Payne, pointed out that most early photographs were not like casual snapshots but were portraits taken for a commemorative purpose, i.e. weddings, christenings, anniversaries, etc. It’s a great insight that I’ve learned to follow when trying to uncover the history behind a photo.

    1. Thanks so much for these observations, Mike. I also wondered about the pants. They could be civilian, as solid pants would make more sense for mass-produced uniforms, but you’re right about the style of Italian military wear, which might call for flashier pants — particularly for a dress uniform. I need to do more research on Italian army uniforms and check on the colors of the jacket trim, etc. in the colorized print. So, fuel for a future blog post!

  7. A very handsome fellow was your great grandfather, Pietro/Peter! I’d certainly take a second look if I saw him somewhere! 🙂

    1. Yes, my sibs and I used to admire Peter’s good looks as we sat around the dinner table in the dining room where his portrait hung. So it’s fun to finally do the research about his life.

  8. Peter radiates dignity.

    I’ve just found two small collections of old family photos. What treasures!

    I’ve been scanning them little by little. Last week I was able to book time in my library’s digitalization desk and could scan some slides. I had no idea when they were taken till now. Some 1960s gems.

  9. So many interesting observations, especially how the smaller copy of the photo changed your previous assumptions. Do you know much about Peter’s time in the Italian army? Did it have anything to do with the family’s decision to immigrate to America?

    1. I don’t know much about Peter’s time in the army. I know four years of service was compulsory after 1861, when Italian unification took place, and that one could not emigrate from Italy without completing military service. So either directly or indirectly, Peter’s military service served as a stepping stone to his new life in the U.S.

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