According to a Boston Globe story, this subculture wouldn't exist without the Internet and its features. These days, libraries are also getting involved, and the Waltham (Massachusetts) Library has joined this community.
His picture arrived in the mail at the Waltham Public Library in a small manila envelope. The well-dressed stranger wore a dark pinstriped suit - late-19th-century vintage. His hair was parted sharply at the left temple, his starched collar crisp and white.
His photo carried the trademark of a Waltham studio, called Brown, L.C. on Main Street, which hasn't existed for more than 100 years.
"Hello," the handwritten note accompanying the picture said. "Don't ask me how I wound up in Sasser, Georgia! Would you please put me on display in your library so my family can find me? Thanks! Sincerely, A Lost Soul."
What was once a treasured image of a brother, husband or son is now an orphaned photo. But though this image might be a "Lost Soul," it is by no means alone. The Internet has created a thriving community of people who have found a calling in rescuing the thousands of these orphaned photos that surface in dusty attics or estate sales, and trying to reunite them with family or friends or anyone who could identify them.
And now Waltham's library has joined that community, drawn in by the arrival of the "Lost Soul" photo in January. Library workers have posted the image and several other unidentified pictures from its files on the library's website, and in a display case outside its Waltham Room.
Librarian Jan Zwicker oversees the local collection and says the library has more than 5,000 historical photos in diverse categories.
Amazingly, the "Lost Soul" is one of only five photos without a name or history attached. It was sent in by Patrica Rock of Georgia who found it in an antique shop. The owner had some 30 photographs, and she bought those with some information on them, such as the Waltham photographer's name.
She hopes someone might recognize the man who might have been a local resident, visitor or student. The article also details some of her finds and happy resolutions:
Another one of Rock's orphaned photos, this one depicting a 19th-century girl, included a name and the name of the man she eventually married. Rock used the information to track down their grandson, an 80-year-old doctor living in Chicopee. Soon afterward, the doctor contacted her with the reaction that she always hopes for. "He was absolutely amazed. She had died giving birth to his father, and they only had one photo of her, taken when she was older. . . . He sent me a paperweight this Christmas."
The article mentions DeadFred.com founder Joe Bott. The site had 62 million hits last year, with nearly 1,300 reunions to date. More than 76,000 photos of all types are posted there.
The library's other four mystery photos have been there for years, and whether those or Lost Soul will connect with family isn't certain. His best clue is the photo studio, in business on Main Street between 1893 and 1895.
Another - late-19th-early-20th century - is a white-haired gentleman wearing a long, fur-trimmed coat, staring into the camera, and taken at a known Boston studio, Elmer Chickering in 1904. A third shows a middle-aged man wearing the clothes of a priest or minister, in a pair of pince-nez glasses. The fourth is of a large crowd, mostly men, on the steps of a large stone building, taken by mystery man Adolphe Bean, who isn't listed in any records of the period. The last is a street scene of a streetcare, showing a steeple above the trees.
Read more of the Boston Globe story on the friends of lost photos here.