October 29, 2022 | Last updated Aug 10, 2023

Why Are These Boys Laughing?

NSHS RG716-31-1 (above)

Frederick Blaine Humphrey, who photographed these laughing boys about 1915, was born in New York State in 1876, came to Lincoln with his family as a child, and took a law degree from the University of Nebraska in 1900. He served in the Nebraska legislature in 1908-9, and was involved in real estate, insurance, and lending.

Eclectic and idiosyncratic, he was a student of Theosophy, a spiritualistic belief system that attempted to fuse science, theology, and philosophy into a single mystical truth. He was also interested in phrenology, which purported to determine personality traits by studying the physical structure of the skull—literally by feeling the bumps on a patient’s head.

Humphrey was also a gifted photographer who captured an intimate and personal view of Lincoln in the nineteen teens and twenties, evident here. He had a particular gift for photographing children with whom he seemed to have an unusual rapport.

Look closely at this engaging photograph of three laughing boys and you will see the punch line of their joke: one boy has his shoes on the wrong feet, and the other two have swapped one shoe each.

—John Carter, Senior Research Folklorist

(This appeared in the Winter 2005 issue of Nebraska History)

The Frederick Blaine Humphrey collection (RG716) comprises more than six hundred items  including miscellaneous manuscript material, scrapbooks, and photographs donated to the Nebraska State Historical Society by his widow in 1958.

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