How to Take the Headache Out Of Old Confusing Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Carol Tear has a photos that’s full of contradictions. It’s enough to give a genealogist a headache, but it doesn’t have to.

She thinks this is Hannah Marquart Obenshain (born in 1788, dies sometime between 1850 and 1860). With a bit of research and family data, some of the identity confusion should disappear. Here’s how you can do it:

1. Study the history of ownership.
A two times great grandmother, Edmonia, once owned the picture. Edmonia’s father and grandparent’s once lived with Hannah’s eldest son.

Seems good, right?

Here’s the problem: The picture bears the name of a photographer, W.B. Atkins, in West Virginia. West Virginia didn’t become a state until 1863. Carol wonders how it’s possible for this photographer to take this picture years after Hannah’s death.

There’s another problem with her photo. The white cardstock it’s printed on dates from the 1890s. That tells us that this image is a copy of a much earlier picture.

2. Study the image.
This is a wonderful photo. Hannah wears a daycap under her headscarf. The caps ruffles frame her face in the style of the early 19th century. She clasps her hands together perhaps to keep her still.

Don’t you love her glasses? They could be a tarnished brass. That style and material was common in the mid-19th century. There is an interesting article on historic eyeglasses online, History on Your Face. Glasses stayed pretty much the same from 1835 until 1870.

When did Hannah sit for her portrait? I’d estimate circa 1860.

3. Research the photographer

W. B. Atkins first appears in the Bluefield Daily Telegram newspaper beginning in 1896. In the 1920s, he’s referred to as the town’s pioneering photographer. You can find this paper online at

Now Carol has another question to answer: Who in her family was living in Bluefield and took an old photo of Hannah to Atkins to have a copy made?

In this instance, the clues of ownership and the photographer help clear up some of the puzzling features of this photo.

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
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