How the Collection Came About

My mother, Mary Gwinn Bowe (1901-1979) acquired many family pictures from her father, Richard Gwinn, Jr.  She herself took many more family pictures during and after her marriage in 1928 to my namesake father William John Bowe, Sr.   I followed her picture taking bent and began taking my own family photographs in the 1950s using a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye.

By the 1960s, taking pictures had become a hobby and in college I had switched to a more grown up Nikon and began accumulating vast numbers of slides. Color slides fit my slim student’s budget better at the time compared with color prints. Long time friend Steve Heineman took this picture of my mother and me appearing to talk shop about pictures in the early 1970s.

After my mother’s death in 1979, I inherited all of her family photos. She had carefully pasted these onto thick black pages in photo albums. Under each picture on these then deteriorating pages she had laboriously written in white ink exactly who was in the photo and where and when was it taken. Over the course of several years whenever I’d have some spare time, I’d take a serrated pie knife and gently free her pictures from the tenacious glue of the crumbling pages.

Cathy, Andy and I lived in Nashville in 1985 when Pat was born prematurely at Vanderbilt Hospital. I was then General Counsel of the wire service United Press International and the company had just declared bankruptcy. This event prompted our move back to Chicago the next year when I became General Counsel of Encyclopaedia Britannica. With the family’s finances now back on a more stable footing, I quickly splurged by purchasing an early personal computer, the Apple IIGS. Without that machine, this archive would never have come into existence. With the IIGS in hand, I needed something to do with it. Serving in counterintelligence in the Army at the Pentagon from 1968 to 1971 had exposed me early on to the growing use and power of computer databases so I initially settled on the idea of creating a searchable text index for my mother’s photos and the many hundreds of slides I had already accumulated.

As was true with all the personal computers of the day, the IIGS didn’t have the processing power or memory to deal with photographic images. The GS just stood for Graphics and Sound. In my new text-only database, each slide index entry had data on the sequential number of the slide’s reel, the slide’s slot number on the reel, the date and place the picture was taken, who was in the picture and what was going on. The reels each contained 100 slides and numbered well over 100 before my slide digitization task was finally finished years later.

Due to the IIGS computer’s limited memory, my captions were constrained to 128 characters. That crimped my ability to use full names, so to save space I created a second text index of two to four letter name abbreviations. That’s why when you click on many pictures in this archive you’ll see the date the picture was taken, followed by short tags of several letters representing the individuals in the photo. There are now over 2,400 individuals cataloged in my photo database, over 80,000 captioned photos and, more recently, many geotags showing exactly where the photo was taken.

As the years went on, as I had anticipated, computer memory and storage capacity vastly increased and the software ultimately permitted digital image files to have integrated captions as well as latitude and longitude metadata. I must admit, transitioning the databases along the way to this archive has been nothing short of a royal pain. This was particularly true when I decided the captions shouldn’t be ALL CAPS and I had to redo the whole schmear in upper and lower case characters.

Since the photos I’ve started with were usually taken by my mother or me, the family members pictured almost always had to be around one of us when we were armed with a camera. In the case of my family Christmas picture on this site’s homepage, I have high school friend Steve Heineman to again thank, but don’t be surprised to find here Christmas pictures of your family sent to my mother or me over the years.

So, with a wealth of organized family media content with metadata at hand, modern computers, family histories written by my mother and my aunt, Julia Lecour Bowe, powerful genealogical software, Facebook photos family members have posted, and the stimulus of being quarantined during the Time of Corona, I set about teaching myself how to build a website on which to publish this digital resource for our extended family. After building a more primitive version of this website, Tony Bowe helped steer me to web designer Laura Fairman for some expert advice on how to take it to the next level. She proved to be of great help both in selecting a basic design that would accommodate the existing and future content, as well as implementing some of the more complicated navigation and design elements of the site that would have taken too much time for me to learn on my own.

Rob Bowe, Charley Bowe, Elizabeth Hart Zera, Joe Hart, Olivia Riboud, Jean Gwinn Riboud, Jean Paul de la Chapelle, Beth Hanley Dunn, John Hanley , Cathy Parish Skura , Will Parish and his mother Paty Parish Pitts, Cecilia Kuhn and Austin Lynch, also provided early advice and content. And, most importantly, Meg Lynch Meyer took an interest in this project and jumped in with both feet to help with the photo archives and her family trees.

I believe most of my time over the years on all this has been well spent. And it’s not true that only an obsessive compulsive computer wonk would think up something like this. Voices I heard in my head kept telling me to do it. It certainly has been entertaining work to do, which has been good for me. It’s also kept me off the streets, which has been good for the general public. And God knows it’s been particularly good for both me and the general public during this Time of the Corona when being quarantined gave me the time to pull all this together.

On the negative side, there have been some big time losers in my quest for a broadly useful family resource. Recently The Wall Street Journal published this article on that subject: In Covid Lockdown, the Family Historian has a Captive Audience. Being empty nesters, our sons Andy and Pat have been spared my wife Cathy’s fate. More than a good sport, poor incarcerated Cathy has been the one forced to listen to the torrents of ancestral tales that I’ve live-streamed into her suffering ears.

-Bill Bowe

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