3 Clues to Solve an Old Photo Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

When a family member won’t talk about a person in a picture, it makes you wonder why. It also leaves you with an unidentified family photo.


Dale Wheeler’s father never spoke about the woman in this photo. Dale has three possible identities for this young woman:

  • Julia Ann (Stewart) Wheeler (1853-1931)
  • Sarah (Cunningham) Linville (1842-1917)
  • Gertrude (Linville) Wheeler (1886-1924)

Date clues in a colorized tintype

  • The chair: Fringed photography studio chairs first appear in the mid-1860s.
  • Her clothing: The wide bow, heavy beads and belted waist suggest a date in the late 1860s to circa 1870.

The tentative date for the image eliminates Gertrude Wheeler from consideration. Now take a good look at this woman’s face and estimate how old she is.

This woman looks young. If this picture was taken in 1869, Julia Ann would be 16, and Sarah, 27. I think this image depicts Julia Ann.

Pay attention to women’s hemlines

There is one other clothing clue that supports this conclusion—her hemline.

The skirt is short, not floor-length. This is a dress length worn by girls, not grown women.

The provenance (history of ownership) of this image also needs to be confirmed, with these considerations in mind:

  • Who is Julia Ann in relation to Dale’s father?
  • Dale’s father was born in 1926 and would’ve been a toddler when Julia Ann died. Did he know her?
  • Do relatives have any photos known to be Julia Ann for comparison?

In this case, the three clues of fashion, props and age suggest a identity for this woman.

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


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