Photo Detective: What a Doll

This photograph of two girls belonged to LaVonne Murray's great-grandparents Maitland Willits House and Louise Anna Gonion. The younger girl bears a resemblance to another relative, Lydia Lymburner (1867-1947); Murray wonders if the girl could be Penelope Lymburner (1897-1980), Lydia's niece. Assigning a date to this photograph would allow Murray to narrow down the possibilities in her family tree.

The original is a card photograph that measures 4 1/8 by 6 3/4 inches, indicating a cabinet card, a popular size for portrait studios in the late 19th century. There is no handwriting on the back, but there is a photographer's imprint: "Pierce & Potter, Leeds, N.D." According to Biographies of Western Photographers 1840-1900 by Carl Mautz (Carl Mautz Publishing, $50), there was a studio by that name around 1895.

The girls' clothing also suggests the 1890s. Both girls wear dresses appropriate for their age—skirts falling just below the knee paired with dark stockings and functional boots. The details in the bodice, neckline and sleeves help identify a time frame. In the early 1890s, sleeves were still narrow with just a little fullness at the shoulder, as seen in the younger girl's dress. A popular fashion for young girls was a smocked bodice—similar to the one worn by the girl on the right. The child on the left wears a dress with a pleated bodice and a ruffled edge below the neckline. The white collar might be a separate garment, rather than part of the dress.

Of course, the most striking part of the image is the large doll in the photograph. Murray doesn't know if it belonged to one of the girls or if it was a photographer's prop. It appears to be a German "dolly-faced" porcelain doll, produced between 1890 and 1930. These dolls were made to resemble children; earlier fashion dolls were modeled after young women. Regardless of who owned the doll, the girl on the left seems delighted to be in the picture with it, while the child on the right looks uncertain about the whole picture-taking process.

The girls' identities remain mysteries. It's unlikely that the younger girl is Penelope Lymburner. Lymburner was born in 1897, and this photograph predates her birth. Murray needs to find a child in her family tree who would have been younger than 10 in the early 1890s. Narrowing down the possibilities by locating records for these two girls could be difficult, though, since registration of vital records was enacted in 1893, repealed in 1895 and then reinstated in 1899. Murray will need to rely on family members for initial clues and then search for records that existed at the time, such as census and cemetery data.

Murray knows that her ancestors were pioneers in the Dakota Territory; one branch migrated to North Dakota in 1879 at the beginning of the Great Dakota Boom of 1878 to 1886. There was another wave of migration into the area when North Dakota became a state in 1889. Since these photographs were in Murray's grand-grandparents' collection, it's possible that at least one of the girls was a relative living in Leeds or the surrounding countryside.

For help with identifying your own family photos of children, I recommend America's Children: Picturing Childhood from Early America to the Present, a new book edited by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin (W.W. Norton, $39.95).

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at