Thanks for Asking | Feb. 28, 2013

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

What do you know about Pfefferkorn Photography from Augusta, WI? I have two old photographs (deceased in coffins) from that business. I find it interesting that photographers back then went to great lengths to photograph these subjects. The floral arrangements and the coffins are very elaborate.

Thanks for asking. Sadly, I don’t know as much about Pfefferkorn Photography as I should. But I think I can hazard a guess that your photograph is more recent than you think.

Ira Pfefferkorn was born in 1902, fourth child of George, an Evangelical pastor in Augusta, and Louise (Dorau) Pfefferkorn. Louise died in 1909 when Ira was seven. (George married Ira’s stepmother Rose Emerich two years later. George and Rose had two more children, so Ira had stepsiblings, too.)

I think Ira went to college in Appleton. In the very early Twenties, he returned to Augusta, where he opened a photography studio. He married Louise Hilts in 1926, they adopted a daughter, but tragically Louise died at age 29 just four years later.

By 1935, Ira had moved to Fort Atkinson. He married Florence Oakley in 1938, eight years after his first wife’s death, and they had at least two kids. Florence died in 1986 and Ira in 1989 in Fort Atkinson. I don’t know anything about the Pfefferkorns’ careers after their move to southern Wisconsin.

Adding all this up, I would bet the photos you have date from the 1920s, late examples of photos in this genre.

Post-mortem photography — also known as memorial photography or, more artfully stated, memento mori — seems morbid to many people now, an aberrant Victorian-era fascination with death and disease, a kind of “steam punk,” a kind of Wisconsin Death Trip. (Seriously, Google that phrase. Read the book, see the movie.)

But really, the photographs speak instead to modest circumstances or plain living. In an age when we’ve tweeted, pinned, or otherwise posted a thousand pix of every house party, it’s hard to remember that in middle America (perhaps especially rural America) a portrait was a rare and expensive luxury until, say, the late Thirties. Although Kodak introduced the Brownie box camera in 1900, the Thirties might have been a tipping point: Kodachrome, 1935, Popular Photography’s debut issue, 1937.

Until then, many people had never been photographed their whole lives — especially children (again, almost exactly backwards from our current culture). Then. Boom. Your loved one died. You would get some money together somehow, and you would call on Charles Van Schaick (Black River Falls), Ira Pfefferkorn (Augusta), or whoever your local photographer was. He would make a memorial photograph ... before, or at, the funeral ... but definitely right now, before the body began to decompose.

Earlier than the photos you have, in the Victorian era, photographers fairly commonly made their subjects appear to be alive: sometimes going so far as to make custom, hidden body-frames to prop them up in a life-like pose, or posing them (especially infants) as if simply asleep. Later, it was more common to acknowledge the death, capture the deceased in the casket surrounded by tokens of respect.

This was also a time when death was more “around us” — infectious diseases took children in many, many families, and older family members more often died at home. We have now spent decades making death remote. It can make these photos seem macabre, when they were loving, respectful, and purchased at a sacrifice. Once we could take snapshots of anyone any old time, memorial photography faded away.

Got a local question? Send it (205 N. Dewey St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 44 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.