Our ancestors didn’t document every second of their lives with photography. Instead, they saved their pennies and visited the studio for a variety of special milestones.
At 3-1/2 X 2-1/4 inches, this tintype is a popular size called a “bon-ton.” It was buried in a family trunk with other unidentified, undated images. Leona Humphrey knows it’s up to her to figure it out. As she wrote in her email, “Except for one cousin of my dad’s, I’m pretty much the only living person with any idea of the possible family.”
I’ve felt this way about a family mystery and I’m sure that many of you have as well.
Here’s how the photo clues and family history details line up:
I’ve created a collage of the picture and some interesting details in this photo of a mother and her four children. Where’s Dad? For some reason, he’s not in this image.
- The fichu collar on the mom’s dress was popular in the circa-1880 period.
- Painted backdrops in the 1880s often looked like living rooms. In this case, the large piece of “furniture” angles towards the group, looking like it’s going to fall on them.
- Both girls wear pinafores and wide collars. The wide collars were also popular in the late 1870s to early 1880s. Pinafores stayed in fashion for decades. Flip through any 19th-century women’s magazine and you’ll find instructions on how to make a pinafore.
Mom’s hair is a variation of the frizzy bangs of the 1880s. She’s arranged her bangs in oiled curls on her forehead. This particular look appeared in the early 1880s. View more examples of hairstyles for men and women in my book Hairstyles, 1840-1900.
Leona wonders if this could be her great-grandmother Guro Sannes and her four children. Guro (born 1845) had Jergen (born 1866), Arne (born 1869), Tilda (born 1874 and Leona’s grandmother) and Gunhild (born in 1882). All the children except for Gunhild were born in Valle, Norway. The family immigrated in 1882, and Guro gave birth to Gunhild in Grand Forks County, ND.
It’s clear that this image could have been taken in the early 1880s, a time frame that coincides with immigration data. The biggest problem is that the ages of the children don’t match the other details.
It’s possible that Guro continued to dress in older-style clothes in the late 1880s, but even rural women followed fashion trends and adjusted some of their attire.
If this picture were taken in 1882, Jergen would be 16; Arne, 13; and Tilda, 8; Gunhild wasn’t born yet. The oldest boy in this picture is definitely not in his mid teens. If the photo was taken later to include the fourth sibling, the other children would be much older. The four siblings in this image are fairly close in age.
- Could this tintype represent other family in Norway?
- Is it possible that this woman was a close friend of Guro’s and wanted her to have a memento before she moved to America?
I’d start by looking at family history data for collateral lines to see if there is a family with four children close in age.
It’s also possible that this photo is someone Humphrey’s relatives knew. It wasn’t unusual to have multiple tintypes made of the same image to give copies to both friends and family.
The backdrop in this image could be a clue to where it was taken. I’d also contact historical societies in the Grand Forks area to see if they have a photo collection and have images by a photographer that used that backdrop. Start with the Grand Forks Historical Society.
If Leona is on social media, it’s definitely worth posting this photograph online, too.
Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor: