Mystery Photo: The Prince of Whales?
September 5, 2011 7:18 PM   Subscribe

What is happening in this vintage photograph I found among my grandmother's photos from her early life?

Early hipsters? What's with H.R.H The Prince of Whales? The crazy clothes? Face paint?

My lovely grandmother would have been 21 years old the year this photo was taken (1924). She lived in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was born in New York (mother = Irish + father = Canadian), her mother was Irish-American and died when my grandmother was 9. Her father owned a shipyard in Brooklyn, and she summered in Mastic and Pearl River. She had relatives in Nova Scotia, but I don't know if she visited them that year.

Any clue what this photograph is depicting? I can find nothing else like this among her photos. The photo paper is exactly the same as the other photos in this envelope of family and friends around this same time. None of the people in this photo are in any other family photos. She liked taking photographs and has a lot of them.

She would have been working as a secretary around this time, for a baking goods company. Living with her grandparents and a maiden aunt. Only had a high school education and had completed that in 1919.

I love this photo! I just don't know anything about it.
posted by jeanmari to Society & Culture (27 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
The first thing I thought of was mummering.
posted by LN at 7:26 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Looks to me as though your lovely grandmother had some Dadaist friends. What fun!
posted by Atelerix at 7:28 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

It looks like there's some boat humour going on from the sign - HRH stands for His (or Her) Royal Highness and I can fainly make out "Prince of Whales" (Wales). Such a weird and wonderful photograph! It seems they are lampooning something to do with royalty, formality or military from the costumes.
posted by Calzephyr at 7:37 PM on September 5, 2011

It could be mummering but the first thing I thought when I saw it was of a straight-up costume party. Either way they look like they are having a swell time. Very sweet.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 7:41 PM on September 5, 2011

Some searching shows Pearl River had a theater that was built in 1922 for vaudeville. This archive seems to focus on the surrounding area. Might be worth emailing the photo to them.

Also looks like "Prince of Whales" was a nickname for Fatty Arbuckle, whose trial would have been in the news in the years leading up to 1924. So maybe a current events vaudeville satire?
posted by MsMolly at 7:51 PM on September 5, 2011

Funny similarity to this old photo which is from this AskMe and is also from Brooklyn.
posted by bonobothegreat at 7:55 PM on September 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

My first thought was that these were Eastern Star or some other coed or women's fraternal costumes along these lines. Bonobo's photo is almost certainly that.
posted by Toecutter at 8:09 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I vote for costume party.
posted by loriginedumonde at 8:35 PM on September 5, 2011

My first thought was the Coney Island Mermaid Parade - but that began in 1983. Some investigation led me to the Coney Island Mardi Gras parade to which the Mermaid Parade pays homage.

Judging by the attire and the boardwalk location there's a good chance it's the Coney Island Mardi Gras.

Link where you can read more and see pictures that look similar to yours.
posted by plasticbugs at 8:40 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

George IV was dubbed The Prince of Whales.
posted by unliteral at 8:45 PM on September 5, 2011

Line-crossing ceremony
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 8:48 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by Ahab at 8:59 PM on September 5, 2011

Could these women be acting in a play - maybe a Gilbert & Sullivan or something in that vein?

(they could even be doing a cross version of one of these plays - all the parts played by women hence the fake beards)
posted by jaimystery at 9:00 PM on September 5, 2011

This may be a coincidence, but in 1924, Baron Renfrew visited the US and drew crowds in New York City.

I'm no expert on royal history, but apparently, Baron Renfrew is also known as Great Steward of Scotland, Lord of the Isles, Earl of Carrick, Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Prince of Wales.

If you search the Time archives for 1924 or The Crimson's archives, you can find out a little more about the trip, but search for Renfrew rather than the Prince of Wales.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:16 PM on September 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Might be a stretch, but something from Atlantic City? Thinking about Boardwalk Empire.
posted by shinynewnick at 9:43 PM on September 5, 2011

The Coney Island connection is a possibility, I'll have to dig around there. My great grandfather was known for his excess after this wife died. He was a regular and often hung out at Nathan's bar (next door to the famous hot dogs concession) and bought a round or two for the house. Among the family papers, we have the receipt for the bill he paid when he decided to buy for every customer for an entire day...over $1,000 in the 1920's. Quite shocking at the time.

The characters in the photo are men, and not women with beards I think. The Dadaist comment made me laugh, but I think the Dadaist's from New York were safely in Paris by 1924?

There are many delightful photos that she left us, but this was certainly the most mysterious one!
posted by jeanmari at 9:46 PM on September 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

In 1924, The Prince of Wales (later to become King George VIII before giving up the throne for "the woman I love," after which he became the Duke of Windsor) visited the U.S., sailing in to New York... and it was a very big deal.

Newsreels: 1, 2 (longer)

He was sort of an international "rock star" figure of the time – young, handsome, charming, romantic, and very popular – so I'm betting this photo captured some cheeky welcome celebration shenanigans among the young men of NYC upon his arrival.
posted by taz at 10:04 PM on September 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

correction: became Edward VIII!
posted by taz at 10:16 PM on September 5, 2011

I thought "Purim" when I saw it, but I'm not sure why. Probably because I have a few photos of classes of kids of this era in Purim attire, and uniforms seem to have been a popular option of the day.
posted by mumkin at 11:12 PM on September 5, 2011

Also, the Prince donated the Wales Trophy to the NHL that year. Perhaps the Canadian relatives were visiting and they all went to New York and whooped it up in costume?
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:22 PM on September 5, 2011

Alothough he donated the Trophy to the Eastern Conference and, since NS doesn't have a team, it's probably more likely that it's NY relatives/friends and that they were all going down to dress like their rockstar idol.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 11:33 PM on September 5, 2011

The Coney Island boardwalk opened in 1924. It looks like it could be a boardwalk they are standing on. Most likely some circus or sideshow clowns.
posted by JJ86 at 6:29 AM on September 6, 2011

I wish I could help more, because this is fascinating. I'm leaning toward JJ86's theory that the men are clowns or performers in a sideshow, for two reasons. First, the second guy from the left is definitely wearing stage makeup. Second, their costumes aren't the thrown-together mimicry you usually see in costume party and homemade theatrics photos - they're pretty elaborate, and look like they were made as costumes, meant to be gloppy with trim and completely over the top.
posted by Miko at 7:15 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did your great-great grandfather emigrate from Ireland?

I think the Prince of Whales picture means they're needling the future Duke of Windsor.
posted by brujita at 7:21 AM on September 6, 2011

My great-great-grandfather (my grandmother's grandfather on her father's side) emigrated from Nova Scotia. His people were Kenney's--shipbuilders, captains and riggers--who came up to Nova Scotia from Plymouth with some Pilgrim descendents before the Civil War. Her other paternal great grandfather was a Hughes from Enniscoffey, never left Ireland. Maternal great grandfathers never left Ireland either (their children emigrated to Brooklyn in the 1860's), Murphy's and Burke's.

Found some more photos would could yield some clues. No scanner, so a lot of these were taken with my iPhone when I was at my mom's house for a visit. I always thought the beach pictures were of Mastic Beach, where my great grandfather had a beach house (my great great grandparents summered in Pearl River). But this photo of my great grandfather from 1920 says "Rockaway Point, NY" on the back which is closer to his shipyard and far from Mastic. I don't know if these beach photos (taken the same year as the Prince of Whales photo) are from Rockaway Point or Mastic Beach. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) I checked out taz's link, and it said that the Prince of Wales did enter NY via Glen Cove and stayed at the Burden Estate on Long Island. Not super close to my Rockaway Point or Mastic Beach, but the family had a car and a carriage with a driver so maybe a day trip to see him dock?

(Taz! That newsreel find is awesome!!!)
posted by jeanmari at 8:16 AM on September 6, 2011

Very similar. Maybe this was continued through the 1920s.
The New York Costumed Bicycle Parade
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 5:26 PM on September 6, 2011

New guess. Inaugural Macy's Day Parade on Thanksgiving. The prince visited about 2 months earlier, so it was still all the rage. Apparently people dressed up for the first parade.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:51 AM on September 7, 2011

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