Portraits in Time

Mamie and Tiny, looking cute

“We did not have any organized recreational programs when we were little, no television or air conditioning, so we had to organize our own playtime. We stayed outdoors much of the time since it was cooler than the inside. Mama always had a hard time making me wear clothes. She said I wanted to stay in my teddies (a little one piece underwear she had made) all the time. Then I wanted to wear an old funny long bathing suit that came down over my knees.

Sara, looking even cuter

“Mama loved to dress the three of us up and thought that everyone was saying ‘Look at those cute little girls.’ She thought everyone would be envious of her with three little girls. We were really very average looking with short hair and bangs.

“Mama took us to Mrs. Spurrier’s Studio to have our pictures made. Mrs. Spurrier had about the only studio in town, and I am sure she took a picture of nearly every kid in town during the years that she had her studio across from the Court House. In later years, her daughter, Mrs. Mildred Topp, wrote a best seller, Smile Please, which was about her mother and about some of the characters around town. She gave them fictitious names, but they were easily recognizable.”

The Spurrier portrait: Mamie, Tiny and Sara

I think Sara and Lillian Spurrier would have been soulmates. Mrs. Spurrier remains a legend in Greenwood, immortalized by her daughter, Mildred Topp, in two of the funniest, most endearing books imaginable: Smile Please (1948) and In the Pink( 1950). She was a talented, indomitable divorcee who carved out a career for herself when women just didn’t do that. An Illinois native, abandoned by her husband just before Mildred was born, she apprenticed with a studio photographer in Alabama and decided that Greenwood was just the ticket to success. In 1906, Greenwood was exploding, growing faster than any other town in Mississippi and boasting a massive new courthouse, castle-like elementary school and dozens of new houses and churches going up. Lillian set up a studio in the downtown post office (now the Whittington Building at Fulton and Market) but soon had her father underwrite the construction of her own two-story studio closer to the bridge. By the time Jessie climbed those still-extant stairs with Tiny, Mamie and Sara in tow, Mrs. Spurrier had been clicking away for nearly twenty years and was the acknowledged master of Delta children’s photography. She would continue until the 1940s, and she left a visual legacy that resonates through Greenwood even today. I cherish that quiet photograph of my mother and her sisters, carefully posed around a little table with a few toys, their hair perfectly combed and their best dresses unsullied by the day’s grit and grime. It’s just so gentle and so lost, a world of small girls who were so cherished and protected, with their whole eventful lives ahead of them. Tiny is very much in charge, fingering one of the toys, and Mamie and Sara are clearly entranced but frozen by Jessie’s out-of-sight raised eyebrow. Wouldn’t you love to step into the scene once the camera was put away? Something tells me that a free-for-all developed fairly quickly.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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2 Responses to Portraits in Time

  1. I love that picture of the tea party. I have it (or a copy of it) in a frame in my living room. Wonder if Mama made those pretty little dresses? ( And why didn’t I ask her more questions like that?) We have other Mrs. Spurrier pictures, beginning with Mama and Daddy’s portraits made just before they married in 1916. All of them were in sepia tone and haven’t faded or deteriorated at all. Mrs. Spurrier was a master photographer and way ahead of her time. In later years her studio across from the court house was made into an apartment, and Gray lived there when he first came to Greenwood in 1958.

    • sec040121 says:

      I’d love to go up in that old studio. And I do wonder where all the negatives went; wouldn’t it be wonderful to find those and print them, as Dr. Gandy did with the Norman Studio collection in Natchez and the Aberdeen Library collection. For small towns, those are true treasures.

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