Caption Confusion in a Foreign Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Caption confusion is a common condition. You may suffer from it. The main symptoms are squinty eyes and a headache from trying to figure out what someone wrote on a picture years ago. You can’t read the handwriting or follow the cryptic clues.

Maybe you discover that what’s written isn’t a caption at all—one of your ancestors used the back of the photo as a notepad or to practice their sums.

If you think that’s enough to drive you mad, think about Debra Allison’s dilemma: The caption is in a foreign language and she’s received not one or two translations, but four.

Last week’s blog post examined the clues on the front of the picture, which dated the picture to the 1880s. Now it’s time for the reverse side.

Let’s start with the photographer’s imprint.

George Schaffer operated his studio in Oberotterbach (Pfalz), a municipality in western Germany. This clue could narrow down who’s in the picture if only part of the family lived there, but that’s not the case in Debra’s family. They all lived in the area.

Three different scripts appear on the back, including a ballpoint translation of the German written in fountain pen, and a pencil caption. A granddaughter of the original owner added “Grossie’s Mother, Father & Sisters & Brother.” Grossie was a nickname for Debra’s great-grandmother, Antoinette/Nettie Fichter.

Which of the following translations is correct? If anyone reads German, please add your translation in the comment field below this article.

  • “To the niece of the mother’s sister.”
  • “To the nice mother of the nun.” [This one is definitely incorrect. While the family was Catholic, no one was a nun.]
  • “on [to?] the Nettie the Mother her sister.”

The family was also told the caption states that the picture was given to someone to give to another person.

Caption confusion indeed!

Debra has created tables for all the possible ancestors in this picture, with their life dates and places of birth and death. One thing is certain: This is not a picture of Antoinette with her mother and siblings—the life dates don’t add up.

So who’s in the picture? Debra and I have some ideas. Watch for the third installment of this photo mystery next week.


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