Shiny New Cars And Women In Pants – What Can We Learn From This Picture?

The main subject of a photograph is not always the people involved. For example, look at these two photographs from my family collection labeled O.H. and Belle Vivell at Gay’s Mills, Wisconsin, in September 1921. Notice that the automobile seems to be more important in the photographs than the background or the people. In both pictures, especially the second one, the people seem to be placed to display the automobile.



From our family history, we know that Oscar H. Vivell was born 11 May 1869 in Carrollton, Illinois where on 24 Aug 1893 he married Anna Belle Davis, born 21 July 1869. He was a very successful business man and was elected Mayor of Carrollton in 1919, 1923 and 1925.

Since for these photographs we already know who, when and where, what can we learn that may be helpful for other pictures that may not be so well labeled? Looking closely at the background, including the signs on the buildings, confirms the location as Gay’s Mills but provides no additional information. Neither O.H nor Belle had any family ties to Gay’s Mill, Wisconsin, but they were well known for their many travels. The area was renowned as an apple growing area and as an area for excellent hunting. O.H. was an avid hunter and they may have traveled to this area for this reason. Notice that Belle Vivell is wearing pants, a rather bold fashion statement for a society woman in her 50’s in the 1920’s. Women wearing what was considered men’s clothing was not acceptable in the 1920’s although there were a few exceptions. Knickers (kneepants) were acceptable as sporting attire on the golf course, often paired with a skirt, but certainly not for casual wear. A few bold women simply wore men’s trousers but this was not acceptable clothing for a fashionable women in any kind of society. The fact that Belle, the mayor’s wife and a member of society in her little town, was wearing trousers as touring clothing may tell us as much about early road conditions as her strong will and desire for comfort over fashion.

(For more information on women in pants, see

Next, let’s move on to the star of the photographs, the automobile. Since the photographs show the side of the automobile, using the license plate as a dating aide is not possible. If you know enough about automobile history, or can find an expert who is willing to help, you can use the vehicle to date the photograph. I admit to no skill in this area whatsoever. My brother, believing he knew a bit more, sent a copy of the photographs to the Ford Museum in Detroit to ask what year this Ford was produced. Their reply was very detailed and very polite, considering this was not a Ford, but an early Buick! The experts identified the car as a 1921 or 1922 Buick standard 6 roadster.

“The 1921 version was known as the model 21-44 and the 1922 was model 22-44. Because there is no indication of a handle on the top of the trunk panel, this car had a trunk and not a rumble seat. This vehicle was identified by: size of the tires, size of the hub caps, number of wheel lug nuts, style and location of hood louvers, shape of the passenger compartment, opening of windshield to rear of folding top, shape of the cowl, length of the hood, shape of the folding top and location of the top straps, the angle of the windshield, the absence of cowl lights and painted radiator shroud.”

So, what have we learned? Nothing really about this photograph, but we did learn a few tricks to add to our photo identification toolbox. Look at the background for names of businesses and places on buildings and signs. Use a website, or ask an expert to help identify the make, model and year of any automobile. If possible, look for the year on the license plate. And, as always, look at the clothing and hair styles of the people in the photograph.

Submitted by Alice Clark, SBAGS President,


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