College Girls in an Old Mystery Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Did your grandmother, great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother go to college? The proof may be in an old photo album.

In the early part of the 20th century, young women filled black paper albums and scrapbooks with pictures of their family, friends and college activities. You might have one of those albums tucked away in an old trunk. If you don’t know where your female ancestor went to school, study those images for clues.

I recently found a series of five photographs of young women at an unidentified school. At least five clues immediately stand out in one of the pictures. These details could add up to identify the school, and then maybe the women.

1. The fluted column.
This is a distinctive feature. Columns come in various designs, but the size and shape of this one stands out. It signifies a large building. The wall visible behind the column is brick. Right away those two clues come together: It’s a large brick building with fluted columns, likely one on either side of the doorway.

2. Engraved stairs.
“Class of 1910” engraved into the riser of the top stair provides a starting time frame for the photo. The clothing clues suggested it was taken circa World War 1, but this clue, combined with the column, adds a more specific piece to the puzzle.

3. A plaque.
These two women sat on the stairs of an important building on campus, one with a commemorative plaque. Unfortunately no amount of tinkering with the image could make it readable.

4. Clothing clues
It’s possible the girl on the left is wearing a uniform of some sort. This signifies a school with a dress code perhaps. Her attire and that of the woman next to her place this image in the circa-World War 1 period.

5. Activity
The girls are making something.


It looks like luminaria. The woman on the right holds a candle. The two bags on the stair have bases that could be filled with sand and an opening for a candle. These are generally made for special occasion. Neither woman is dressed for cold weather so these could be for a graduation, an induction ceremony, a fall festival or some special school event.

Brick+column+engraving+plaque =a very recognizable building standing as of likely 1910. The problem is…WHERE?

Where was it taken?
Posting on social media as a crowdsourcing experiment didn’t help, so it’s back to research. A timeline of women’s colleges in the United States on Wikipedia works as a checklist. I’m using the process of elimination to try to figure out where these women and the other women were photographed.

It’s a three-step process.

  • Use Google Images to look for pictures of each of the colleges listed on Wikepedia to see if there are any buildings with fluted columns built circa 1910.
  • If there are buildings with columns on the campus, then the next step is to look at digital collections in the school archives on their website.
  • Send an email to their archivist asking if they recognize the building.

This research takes time.

So far I’ve heard back from the following colleges: Wellesley College, Hollins University and Barnard. No matches.

So…if you recognize those distinctive features or know of someone who might, please share this.


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