A Pair of Photo Mysteries: Charcoal-Enhanced 1840s Portraits

By Maureen A. Taylor

Darlene Sampley isn’t sure who the young woman is in the painted tintype featured in last week’s column, but she working on figuring out the mystery. But that tintype isn’t the only problem photo in Darlene’s collection. This week it’s a pair of portraits, of a mysterious man and woman. Ladies first:

There are several clues in this picture.

First, it’s a copy. It’s a charcoal enhanced photograph on paper, as is the next image.

The vertical pleats in this woman’s bodice suggest that her dress dates from the 1840s. This means the original was a daguerreotype.

Additional clues include:

  • Narrow lace collars were common in this period, then re-appear in the 1860s.
  • There are streaks of gray in her hair.
  • Married women often wore daycaps covering their hair in the mid-19th century. It’s a conservative cap, plain with small ruffles on the sides of her head.
  • Her nose is narrow with a triangle shaped tip. Together with her small mouth, these two features can be used to identify her in other images.

The second portrait could be her husband.

Look at the width of those lapels on his coat! Combined with the knotted tie with upturned shirt collar, this suggests the 1840s.

There are wisps of gray in the long sideburns and hair, but it’s his eyes that dominate the portrait. They are deep-set and likely blue. Unlike last week’s picture, the photographer didn’t color them. Those eyes, his wide straight mouth and narrow chin could help identify him in later pictures.

If this couple were in their 40s or early 50s, then they were born around 1800.

There is a possibility on Darlene’s family tree: William Noyes (b.1789 -d.1878) and his wife “Polly” Huestis (b.1800 -d.1863). There are other couples on her tree born in this general time frame as well. To sort them out, she needs to do the following:

  • Follow the history of ownership of these portraits to verify they come from the Noyes line.
  • Find other images. Since they live past mid-century, I’m hoping someone else in her family have other images of them for comparison.

Fingers crossed! I’m also hoping that someone in the family has the original daguerreotypes.

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