Adding up the Clues to Identify an Old Mystery Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Last week I wrote about the importance of knowing the lineage of your photos. The key details of provenance can keep you from making a photo identification mistake.

Kimble DaCosta knows a lot about the photos she inherited. Her ancestor Ella Seamands identified most of the images in a chest that Kimble inherited, but there were a few that she didn’t name.

In this picture, both the woman and the man look uncomfortable in front of the camera. Their discomfort could be due to the reason they posed for the picture or because sitting for a photograph was an unusual event in their lives.

When identifying the photographic method used to create a 19th-century print, examine clues such as cardstock and the hue of the print. Trained photographic conservators use a microscope at 30X magnification will reveal in detail what an original print looks like at the fiber level. They also look at the surface character of the photo by viewing it flat at eye level.

The purplish hue of this print suggests it could be either a gelatin or collodion printing-out paper, first available in 1885 and in use until 1920.

The clothing clues in this image date it to the late 1890s, when flat, pie plate-shaped hats with high trim were common. All the lace trim on this woman’s hat suggests it was meant to be worn in summer.

This young woman wears fingerless gloves and carries an umbrella and a fan. While the gloves and hat are likely part of her wardrobe, I wonder if the photographer has supplied the umbrella and fan. She looks awkward holding them.

Let’s say this picture was taken about 1897, and the man and woman are close to 20 years of age. This is a hypothesis that could help Kimble find the right people in her family tree. They would’ve been born in the late 1870s, with a little wiggle room on either side of the date.

I’m hoping this information leads to an identification. Next week I’ll look at two of her other images.

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