Old Mystery Photos: ID Clues in a Family Gathering Picture

By Maureen A. Taylor


Heidi Thibodeau’s cousin found this image in the papers of her grandmother (Heidi’s great-grand aunt), Bessie Mabel Hodgdon Hoogerzeil. Bessie was born Jan. 27, 1877. Heidi thinks she might be in this photo.

A caption on the reverse states the picture was taken by Sprague and Hathaway, July 6, 1890.

There is evidence to support this date:


The two women (left and center) in this collage wear the peaked shoulder seams of the circa 1890 period. The children (right) wear striped play clothes popular in this era as well.

While several women wear dark-looking clothes, they may not have been wearing black. Many bright colors appear dark in 19th century, black-and-white photographs. Popular clothing colors in the 1880s included shades of red, brown and greens.

Photographic mat
Chocolate-colored cardstock was commonly available in the 1880s and faded out in favor of light-colored card stock in the 1890s.

Sprague and Hathaway started their company in 1874 in the Davis Square area of Somerville, Mass. By 1890, the studio was a corporation and they’d moved to West Somerville, Mass. The Smithsonian has trade catalogs relating to these photographers.

Look closely at the women in the middle row. They carry fans to help them deal with the hot, humid weather of a New England July. Several individuals look like they’re tired of posing for the picture.

One little girl has her eyes closed.

If this picture was taken today we’d think she was looking at her phone. In 1890, though, she either fell asleep or blinked.

So who’s in the picture? Next week I’ll tackle who might be who.

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