Rules for Identifying Photographs: Study the Photo First

Rules for Identifying Photographs: Study the Photo First

Maureen A. Taylor has a new uniform mystery to work through, and she's letting us in on the steps of her investigation. Who could this gentleman be? See if you can help us work through the clues.

Rules Identifying Photographs

After last month’s focus on uniforms, I thought I’d share another one. This one is definitely military though.

This handsome man in a beard may not be who the family thinks he is.

One of the cardinal rules of photo ID is to question each identification. When I look at images for clients (and for this column) I study the photo first, then consider the background information.

I make a list of what I see in an image then try to tease out the rest of the information. In the case of this photo:

  • The brown card stock
  • Size of the image
  • Background Details
  • Hashmarks on his uniform
  • Spiked helmet with cord
  • Belt buckle clues

Now look at each one of these individually.

Brown card stock

This was popular in the 1880s.

Card size

While I don’t have the original I can email the owner and ask them to measure it. Even without the exact dimensions I can tell that it’s a cabinet card. There were different sized cards in the late nineteenth century.

Background details

This fancy studio backdrop makes it look like the man is standing in a living room. The style of furniture painted in the background can help place the image in a time frame too. The tall piece to the left is common throughout the 1880s, further suggesting a time frame for the image.

Hashmarks on his sleeve

A quick Google search for the meaning of “hashmarks” identify this man’s rank as Sergeant or equivalent. He’s a non-commissioned officer.

Spiked helmet and belt buckle

The owner of the image wondered if this was her German ancestor posed in Germany. The belt buckle with the US changed her mind. This man is a soldier in the United States Army.

Rules Identifying Photographs

What’s up with the spike helmet? Ah…so German military methods were so admired that beginning in around 1880, the United States Army began wearing spiked headgear.

Searching Google for “US military uniforms 1880” turned up a close match but it’s not quite right. It’s later than my search terms. There are similarities though. Every detail of a uniform needs to be exact for the time period to be right.

Rules Identifying Photographs

I think this man posed in his dress uniform in the late 1880s, perhaps around 1888. I’ll have to spend more time on the details of this uniform to narrow it down further and verify the time period.

Back to the family

The owner thinks her great great grandfather (b. 1816) is in this image. If this man posed for a photo in 1886, he’d be in his 70s. An unlikely ID. This man is a lot younger.

What now?

The family surname might be correct but the first name wrong. I’d start by looking for other men in the family that served in the US Army after 1880. This man with the intense blue eyes and what appears to be a light brown beard is a solvable mystery.


Maureen A. Taylor, author of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, provides all the information you need to care for your family photograph collection. In Preserving Your Family Photographs, she outlines how to add value to your home collection by using the methods that conservators and photo curators use every day!

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