Clues in a Civil War Era Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

Winston Cochrane sent in this adorable photo of a mother and daughter. Mary Meaux and her daughter Nannie M. Cochrane posed for this image, which shows the close connection between the two. Winston would like to know if the daughter is wearing a wedding dress. She married in Louiseville, Ky., in July 1870, at age 21. At the time her mother was 51.

Before examining those clues, I played with an online site called PicMonkey.com to add details to the image. Here are a few things I immediately saw when looking at the picture for the first time.

  • They both have slight smiles on their faces.
  • They are holding hands!
  • On the mother’s dress, you can see the hoop line on her skirt.

Clues to Date the Image

  • The size and shape of the card photograph identifies it as a carte de visite, a type of photograph first introduced to the United States in 1859.
  • The double blue line on the card was popular throughout the 1860s.
  • By the 1860s to early 1870s, round, cornered cards on thick cardstock were common.
  • In the mid-1860s, fanciful trim appeared on dresses. I love how the zigzag stitch on the mother’s skirt appears in a tighter pattern on the daughter’s bodice. The daughter’s dress features plackets of different colored fabric at the shoulder seam and along the bottom of the dress. It’s more than an everyday dress. The mother’s sleeves feature ruffled trim at the wrists, a common trim in the mid to late 1860s.
  • How old are they? This is the big question. Does the daughter look 21? What do you think?
  • One detail I don’t have is the back of the card. A revenue stamp on the back would narrow the time frame, as would the design of the photographer’s imprint.

So when was it taken?

I’ll rule out the early 1860s.The daughter wears a lovely dress with plenty of details that suggest it’s worn for a special occasion. It’s a light colored dress in an indeterminate color. Wedding dresses ranged from white to darker colors. Most brides in this period wore a very nice dress, not necessary white.

Her hat dates from the mid-late 1860s, when narrow-brimmed hats with trim became commonplace.

Until I see the back, I’ll place this image in the circa 1868 time frame. Dating clothing is not always an exact science. Sometimes people wore older clothing styles, comfortable with what they’ve been wearing, rather than newer styles.


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