Cherryl Montgomery found this tintype in her grandmother's trunk, and thinks it's a picture of one of her great-grandmothers—either Clara Henry Jean Louis or Marie Virginie Broussard. In the absence of a photographer's imprint—which could supply a specific date for the image—it's necessary to analyze each of the image's details, one at a time.
Complicating the identification is the fact that Louis and Broussard led similar lives in Louisiana. Louis was born into slavery in 1854 in LaFayette Parish, La. After the Civil War, she married a free black man from an affluent family. Broussard also was a slave until her husband purchased freedom for her and their three children. Both women lived into the early years of the 20th century.
Let's take the picture apart and see how the clues add up:
The woman in this picture is clasping a set of rosary beads—a clear indication of her Catholic faith. This detail could verify her identity if only one of the women was Catholic; however, most of southern Louisiana (including Montgomery's family) is Catholic. Montgomery knows that Broussard was one of the few slaves her owner Isidore Broussard took to be baptized at a young age. Since both women were Catholic, the rosary beads don't help determine who is depicted.
You'll also notice the woman's very fashionable hat, which is characteristic of the 1890s. Hats during that period were tall and narrow. Adorned with feathers, artificial flowers and large amounts of ribbon, hats from the 1890s added several inches to a woman's height. The hat here is decorated with flowers and ribbon.
Sleeve styles changed several times during the 1890s. At the onset of the decade, small puffs appeared at the shoulder line; at mid-decade, large leg-o-mutton sleeves dominated an outfit. The sleeves worn here are full on the upper arm and very tight from the elbow to the wrist. These features are characteristic of dresses circa 1897 to 1900. Consult Linda Setnik's Victorian Costume for Ladies, 1860-1900 (Schiffer, $29.95) for examples of similar sleeves.
Also characteristic of the 1890s were high collars and fabric insets in the bodice, as shown in this portrait. What's unusual about her dress is the combination of fabrics. It appears that the inset is a different fabric than the rest of the bodice, with the lower sleeves made from yet another piece of cloth. This often happened when women re-made dresses, instead of purchasing new ones.
A close-fitting corset is visible beneath her attire and may account for her stiff pose. You can actually see the outline of the stays, which must have been uncomfortable to wear. These undergarments were popular from the 1870s through 1914 and actually caused physical damage to some wearers, according to Support and Seduction: A History of Corsets and Bras by Beatrice Fontanel (Harry Abrams, $19.98).
Unfortunately, none of this portrait's clues lead to an identification. The next step in the identification process would be comparing this woman's facial features with pictures of other family members. This might help Montgomery determine which of the two women sat for this portrait. In addition to looking at the shape and size of ears, eyes, nose and mouth, it's important to take into consideration how the two families aged. Both of the women would have been in their 40s when this portrait was taken.
Caring for this picture
This tintype has had a rough life. But like most of these metal images, it has withstood poor storage conditions. The rust along the edges could be a result of surface abrasion, combined with the high humidity found in Louisiana. Copying this photograph or having a conservator stabilize it can preserve it for future generations. Regardless of whom it depicts, this image is an important part of the family's heritage. Montgomery can locate a photographic conservator in her area through the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works' free referral program. Call (202) 452-9545 or visit aic.stanford.edu.