The startled expression of Violet (1908-1968), seated on the floor next to her mother, is possibly a reaction to the flash of the camera as it went off, the photographic process of the day requiring a tripod, timer and a wait of some minutes—no selfie sticks back then! Her father, John Molfino (1874-1937), was an avid amateur photographer and a successful Benicia barber of the time (1907–1937). In 1995, his 400 glass plate negatives were given to the Museum, where they have been lovingly scanned and uploaded to our archives. Her older sister, Marguerite (1902-1973), is seated to Violet’s left, wearing quite the enormous hair bow! Like her sister, she is posing with her new Christmas doll, probably the “big” present for each, with other gifts arranged in front of them. What a variety of fun stuff Santa has brought: a ball, a toy cart (filled with oranges from their stockings?), a toy boat, a dollhouse chair and a toy locomotive. The tree is looped with garlands of threaded popcorn and tinsel, actually made from tin (hence the name) as opposed to the plastic versions available today. A few lights, a few ornaments, a tiny stocking and a bag of candy—that’s pretty much it for the decorations.
Although Martha Stewart would probably not approve, I am struck by the casual artfulness displayed here that conjures up the image of happy children doing most of the tree work while Mom and Dad attend to other holiday duties. I am also a fan of their parlor décor that incorporates a different pattern each for the curtains, wall, and ceiling, with a “more is more” approach. John and Dita (1874–1963) were both born in Italy, immigrants to the U.S. who met and married in California. The Molfino Shaving Parlor was located at 635 First Street; the home interior pictured here was located at 128 West H Street. Although Marguerite moved away, graduating from UC Berkeley and settling in Sacramento where she married a fireman, raised her four children, and worked as a hospital dietician, Violet became a teacher at Benicia High School where she rose to become Dean of Girls. After Violet’s husband passed away in 1955, she moved in with her mother on Wingfield Way. I like to think that she and Mrs. Molfino derived pleasure and comfort from their photographs, perhaps pausing at this arresting image, and remembering the sister who should also have been there with them under the tree: Elvira, born in 1900, who died from an undisclosed illness, at age six. She would have been about twelve years old when this picture was taken had she survived.