Identifying Mystery Photos in an Old Family Album

By Maureen A. Taylor

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A family photo album opens the door to new genealogy discoveries, but reading the clues in an album isn’t always easy. It often comes down to what you know about your family and who’s depicted on each album page.

The most important people to the person who laid out the album are usually at the beginning, especially the first three pages. Those individuals are significant. If you know who they are, it’s a lot easier to figure out who else is in the album and who’s been left out.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that many people used their albums as part family photo collection and part scrapbook. You’ll often find pictures of famous individuals and friends as well as relatives.

For Eileen Poulin, the whole question of who’s in her great-grandmother Josephine Payeur’s album is complicated by the ancestor’s four marriages. The album may represent her own family as well as those of her spouses.

Josephine’s family hails from Three Rivers, Quebec, Canada. She was born in Vermont and later moved to Connecticut. She had two children with her first husband and one each with the next two husbands. There were no children from her fourth marriage.

To analyze who’s who in Josephine’s album, it’s important to study the milestones of Josephine’s life—such as her birth and death dates as well as those for each of her husbands and the birth dates of her children. I’d also like to know when they lived in various places. This data provides an outline in which to study the images.

The next step is to place each of the images in to a time frame based on the usual clues of clothing, photographer’s work dates and photographic format. For instance, she submitted a picture from the album (above). It’s a lovely photo of a young woman posed with a puppy. Remarkably, the puppy stood still for the picture. The young woman smiles for the camera.

Two fashion clues immediately place the photo in a time frame: puffy sleeves and an asymmetrical hat with high plumes. These date the picture to the late 1890s. If we estimate the woman’s age at about 20, she would’ve born sometime in the late 1870s. Elaine can match that picture with her outline of people and facts. Unfortunately, there’s no photographer’s information on the picture to further narrow the possibilities.

I’d love to know more about the album and see the first pages to help Elaine figure out the story behind it and the woman who created it.

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