Clues in an Old Photo Copy: Who Is She?

By Maureen A. Taylor

Two weeks ago I wrote about Shirley Dunkle’s image, a copy of an earlier photo. The clues added up to suggest the photo was copied about 1900, but that this woman in the image sat for the original portrait in the mid 1850s.

Dunkle - Moores family - About 1860.jpg

Shirley has a possible identification for this woman based on the date: She young woman could be Mary Jane Smethurst. She was born May 24, 1839, in Middleton, Lancashire, England. She married James Roberts March 31, 1861, in St. Mark’s, Dukinfeld, Cheshire, England.

After the death of her husband in 1885, Mary Jane and many of her children immigrated to Massachusetts in 1888. She died in 1916.

If this is Mary Jane,she was approximately 17 years of age and living in England when she sat for this portrait.

I have one last question. What type of photograph was the original?

In the United States, photographs taken in the mid-1850s were primarily daguerreotypes. These are shiny and reflective, and quite distinctive in their appearance. But when I looked at photographs at the Who Do You Think You Are Live show in London, it was quite apparent that the English didn’t embrace the daguerreotype.

William Henry Fox Talbot, an English photographic inventor, introduced a type of paper print that was popular in the 1850s: the salted paper print, produced from paper negatives.

Frederick Archer invented photographs on glass in 1851. His ambrotype process competed with both the salt paper print and the daguerreotype. The Ambrotype didn’t become popular in the United States until the mid-1850s.

Shirley’s family no longer owns the original photograph. I’m hoping another of Mary Jane’s descendants still does and can shed some light on just what type of picture their ancestor posed for.

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