Foreign Photo Caption Mystery

Foreign Photo Caption Mystery

Ownership is a clue to who's in a mystery photo. The problem is while most people know who gave them a picture—such as an aunt, parent or grandparent—but before that, ownership information may be unknown. Debra Allison can trace the provenance (ownership) of this picture back to her great-grandmother Antoinette...

Ownership is a clue to who’s in a mystery photo. The problem is while most people know who gave them a picture—such as an aunt, parent or grandparent—but before that, ownership information may be unknown.

Debra Allison can trace the provenance (ownership) of this picture back to her great-grandmother Antoinette “Nettie” Fichter Mader (1856-1938). Nettie gave the picture to her daughter, and then her granddaughter (who expanded the caption on the back) gave it to Debra.

This photo has a caption on the back that offers ID clues both helpful and frustrating. This week, we’ll focus on the front of the photo.

Debra knows that Nettie Fichter immigrated to the US in 1881 and that she brought her nephews August and Phillipp Letzelter with her. She was the youngest member of her family.

Should be easy to figure out who’s in this photo, right? Not so fast.

Debra sent me a page-long chart that included the names of everyone she found who had a family relationship to Nettie. It lists the person’s name, their relationship to Nettie, their date and place of birth, date of immigration, marriage and death dates and their place of death. Whew! That’s a whole lot of research.

A family would often pose for a group portrait before someone immigrated to create a memento both for the immigrant and for the family left behind. It also was common for family members to pose for a group portrait after the fact to send to the immigrant.

Let’s look at who’s in the this picture. There’s a husband (the mustached man) and wife (the woman next to him). The wife has her hand on the older woman’s shoulder. A daughter would do this. The older woman occupies the center, the most important spot in the photo. To our left are three children, two boys and a girl. To our far right is a young man with his hand on his mother’s shoulder.

Who might they be?

According to Debra’s chart, Katherine Fichter Letzelter, the mother of August and Phillip, had eight children. There are only four children in this photo, three boys and a girl. Katherine’s mother Elisabeth was born in 1814 didn’t die until 1888.

The clothing clues in this picture, such as the husband’s under-the-collar tie and the wife’s jacket-like bodice and pleated hem, suggest a date in the 1880s. The dark cardstock mat was also popular in that time frame.

Take a closer look at the picture. The photographer put a dark dot in the center of each of their eyes. Blue/light colored eyes often paled in pictures so darkening them for portraits was common. It’s quite possible that members of this family all had blue eyes.

I’ll be back next week with a look at what’s on the back of the picture.


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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