It was just another day at the renovation project, and I expected to see more demo, more debris and not much else. When I arrived, I was met by a team of workers who were so excited to show me what they found in the guest bedroom wall. You guessed it, ANOTHER surprise but this time in the interior wall. It was a photograph of a gentleman and the backmark (logo and signature markings on the back of the photograph) in pristine condition, labeled S.T. Souder, Charleston, SC, 263 King Street opposite Hasel St. A team of blue jeaned, plaster covered workers surrounded me and smiled on as I almost broke down in tears that they had found someone’s precious photo, lost and protected from the elements for probably 100 years.
I was beside myself with excitement as I photographed the exact location it was found, confirmed it was squarely inside the wall, and off I went to the Charleston Library to do some research.
I have used the South Carolina Room of the Charleston Library on a number of occasions to research genealogy and the history of this home. The staff there are extraordinary and this was no exception. Two hours and two research experts later, I had uncovered information about the photographer, his studio, the building, and the history of photographers in Charleston.
The mystery continued, as I learned that this photographer had a studio from 1871-1873 in Charleston, years before the house was even built. So how did it get in the wall, and why?
Stephen T. Souder (1838-1880) was an accomplished photographer and advertised “stereographs of Fort Sumter, Magnolia (cemetery) and All points of Interest in Charleston, Also Savannah, and Florida Views”, (Harvey S. Teal, 2001, Partners with the Sun, South Carolina Photographers 1840-1940). In 1871, Bertha Souder (1842-1926), his wife, purchased from Quinby & Co., the photographic business including 4000 negatives. Bertha Souder was only one of five women who owned or operated photography studios in South Carolina from 1840-1880. They had 8 children but only two were living when the house we are renovating was built (Ralph Souder, 1865-1941 and Eliza Souder, 1876-1961). I am not sure that this is relevant, but in my research I was desperately looking for a connection to the house.
The location of the studio was my next project. I found it has been a place of artistry, creativity, and design since the late 1800’s. It changed hands but remained a photography studio for many years. In 1895 it was H. Leidloff’s Ground Floor Art Gallery and was noted as “one of the best equipped and most handsomely arranged places of the kind in the South. Here every improvement and convenience for the making of the very best work will be found, and not only the facilities, but the artists themselves are among the best in the country….The interior is a work of art.” (Photo and quote from “Atlantic Exposition and South Illustrated”). It was Huguley’s, which I remember from my childhood, and true to its creative roots, it is now none other than Michael Kors!
So the mystery continues. I took a journey and I learned new things about the history of Charleston. I have a wonderful photo and story to share, and I am still in search of who is in the photo and if it is connected to either the house or my family. My imagination tells me it was someone’s special person. Why it was preserved in the wall, I don’t know. But I will treasure and keep safe this momenta that someone cherished, many years ago.