by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Portraits are telling for a wide variety of reasons. They can give us a good idea of fashion of a given time, they might be vocational showing someone in a uniform or with the tools of the trade, they might have been taken for a special event like a wedding or confirmation or they might be introducing a new member of a family especially a baby.
Some portraits just stand out for being highly unusual, whether it involves an interesting hairstyle, approach to fashion, a jaunty way of standing or holding a hat, or any number of reasons. Today’s “Portrait Gallery” selection, a studio portrait taken by W.L. Brush of what was then known as East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, stood out because of the combination of clothing sported by a man identified by an inscription on the reverse as “Charlie Walshe.”
Portraits were still, in the late 19th century, pretty rare and special occasions, so it was quite typical for subjects to wear their best outfits when going down to the studio to have one taken. For Walshe, this meant an intriguing combination of a wide-brimmed bowler hat, a wide striped necktie, a long-sleeved white dress shirt and . . . overalls. Yes, overalls.
Now, having the hat, tie and shirt with what are clearly work overalls led to an obvious question: what did Walshe do for a living? And, then, came the follow-up: was this a vocational photograph? A little poking around found some information that perhaps indicated the answer.
Charles A. Walshe was born about 1867 in Northern Ireland and migrated to the United States in 1888, coming to Los Angeles very soon after. He married Laura Clinton, a native of Missouri in 1890, about the time the photo was taken, and the couple had two sons and a daughter. In the mid-1890s, Walshe became a naturalized American citizen.
He worked for years as a painter with the Southern Pacific railroad and then for the Los Angeles Railway. The two censuses in which he could be found show him as a sign painter (1910) and a carriage painter (1920). Walshe was a member of the Order of St. George, a fraternal organization of Englishmen living in America.
The Walshe family moved quite often over the years, living in East Los Angeles and in areas north of downtown that were close to the Southern Pacific railyard, now the location of the recently opened Los Angeles State Historic Park. Later, however, after he left the railroad firm’s employment, Walshe and his family lived mainly in South Los Angeles, in what was called the “South Park” neighborhood. There was a brief stay near East Hollywood before the Walshes settled in Atwater Village, where Charles died in the 1920s in his later fifties.
Throughout his working life, however, he remained a sign or carriage painter. Given the incongruous ensemble of hat, dress shirt, tie and overalls, it may be that the photo was taken to show what Walshe, who was perhaps wearing his “uniform” of a painter’s overalls, was doing professionally and is, therefore, a “vocational photo.”