Photo Detective: Real-Photo Postcard

Eighteen-year-old Peter Gordon of Middlesbrough, England, submitted this photo he found a box of his great-aunt's things. Gordon has a fair amount of information on his family members, but he needs a date for this picture to identify the sitter.

When I look at any photo, I see it in terms of a series of unanswered questions. It's a lot like playing a game of Clue. For instance:

  • What's the style of the picture?
  • Who's in it-man, woman, or child?
  • What are they wearing?
In this photo, each of these questions adds a little bit to the story. It's a real-photo postcard of a woman wearing a large hat with a feather and holding a young baby. From 1908 to about 1914, women wore huge hats decorated with feathers, bows and flowers, just like the one seen here. That's the easy part.

After examining the front of an image, I'll flip it over to see what's on the reverse. Often I find a photographer's imprint, a caption or some other clue that helps confirm the date. In this case, Gordon says the "Nana O'Brien" caption was written by his great-aunt's son. This provides a tentative identification of Florence May O'Brien (born in 1889; died in 1972), but is it correct?

The three pieces of evidence that support that theory are verifying the date, determining the age of the woman in the picture and identifying the baby. The first step is matching the design of the postal card back to those on Playle's Auction Web site. This card resembles those manufactured by Crown Studios from 1913 to 1929, a date range that fits the clothing details. Since hats of this woman's style were in vogue during the early part of that time frame, the ID now rests on the age of the woman in the picture. In 1913, Florence O'Brien would be 24 years old. All that's left is the baby.

Gordon says that during the second decade of the 20th century, O'Brien had several babies —Ellen (born in 1915), William (born in 1916) and Florence (born in 1918). Now Gordon should just compare this image to a known photo of O'Brien. Instead of Col. Mustard in the dining room, this family history edition of Clue points to Florence O'Brien between 1913 and 1916. Mystery solved.