A Family Portrait Photo Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor

Lauren Hamilton submitted this photo with a few questions, but as soon as I saw it I thought, “uh oh, this might not be who Lauren and her cousin think it is.”


The cousins’ great-great-grandfather John McCauley was a Mennonite minister in Ontario, and later an Evangelical minister in Iowa. Born about 1840 in Dunfermline, Scotland, he and his family immigrated to Markham, Ontario approximately two years later.

McCauley moved to Iowa in 1872 and died there in 1899.

Lauren’s first question was about the approximate date of this photo.

Women wore dress styles like this in the late 1880s. This woman’s dress has a bodice that ends at the hip and a skirt with straight pleats. She wears her hair in a simple bun.

Her husband wears a typical suit for the period. It consists of a slightly fitted jacket, likely with a vest underneath, and a tie with a wide knot at the neck. Lauren wondered if this man wearing a minister’s collar, but he’s not; rather, he’s wearing a patterned silk tie. His trimmed mustache and neat hair cut also suggest this photo was taken very late in the 1880s.


This date conflicts with family information on McCauley. In the 1880 Census for Montgomery County, Iowa, the 40 year old McCauley has seven children aged six months to 16. The two youngest children are girls.

Lauren also wanted to know if the child standing in the skirt is a boy. That could be. In the 1880s, boys up to age 5 wore skirts, sometimes with pants underneath. Plaid was a popular patterned fabric throughout the decade. Lauren thought that child might be a McCauley son born in 1864, but the 1880s date rules out that identification.


Lauren really wants to know if the photo was taken in Ontario or Iowa. Unfortunately, this 3.5×5-inch photograph appears trimmed, instead of mounted on cardstock, as for most 19th century images. Such mounts often provide the photographer’s name and location, a valuable clues for identifying a picture. That and the color of the cardstock, also a telling clue, are missing in this instance.

The photographic backdrop might help in identifying who took the image. In order to look for studios that match this setup, Lauren needs to know a location.

So who’s in the picture? McCauley would be close to 50 years old in the late 1880s, and his youngest child would be 7 or 8. This husband and wife look younger.

Instead of confirming Lauren’s identification, I’ve deepened the mystery. Hopefully this new information will match someone on her family tree.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books 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
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album