Grandmother Mix-up: 8/21/00  
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Grandmother Mix-up
by Maureen Taylor

This week's photograph came from Joan Lawler of England. In her family collection is this picture of an elderly woman that she knows is one of her grandmothers—Mary Ann Spellman or Mary Ann Grime. She hopes that by dating the woman's clothing and through comparison to other family images, she can correctly identify which grandmother she is looking at.

This photograph focuses on the head and shoulders of a woman wearing a hat with an elaborate decoration that frames the face. The ostrich feathers sticking out of ribbons and flowers date the hat to circa 1900. Her suit has slightly puffed sleeves, the last vestige of the full leg of mutton sleeves of the 1890s. This detail at the shoulder seam reinforces the date. The woman chose to complete that outfit by wearing a large ribbon tied like a bow at the neck.

Joan Lawler's two grandmothers share similar life dates. Mary Ann Spellman was born in Dublin circa 1834 and died March 13, 1900, in Rhodes, Manchester, England. Mary Ann Grime was born circa 1845 and died sometime after 1881. She is still trying to locate a death date.

In order to help with the identification, she attached a photo of Ada Booth, daughter of Mrs. Spellman.

Identifying two photographs solely on physical characteristics is difficult when you are looking at images of the same person taken at different times in her life, but comparing those elements across generations is even more complicated. Facial characteristics change with age and illness, while a second generation introduces additional features. However, these two women seem to share several common facial features. The shape and size of the nose and mouth are similar, as is the lower ear. The two women resemble each other, but positive identification is challenging. If this is Mary Ann Spellman, she would be approximately 66 years old when it was taken.

The most obvious clue to identity would be a death date for Mary Ann Grime prior to 1900. This would clearly establish that the portrait was Mary Ann Spellman. Joan Lawler's continuing search for Grandmother Grime's death date holds the key. It is quite likely that this picture is of Mary Ann Spellman. Without further information, this identification is based on clothing details, family resemblance, and the age of the woman in the photo.

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

Maureen A. Taylor, owner of Taylor & Strong, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the upcoming Preserving Your Family Photographs and the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs. She also is project manager for, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

Her current book, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, provides the reader with proven methods of photo analysis and interpretation. With Taylor's help, the mystery surrounding many old family pictures can at last be unraveled, enabling these photographs to assume their proper place among treasured family memorabilia.

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