Proud Mamas in Old Photos: Finding the Clues

By Maureen A. Taylor

What’s the first thing you see when you look at this picture? My eye immediately gravitates to the woman and her slight smile. She’s one proud Mama seated with her two children and her husband.

Your eye might be drawn to the wicker chairs, the animal skin rug or Dad’s crooked tie. When we look at a family photo our eyes become focused on one detail and then dart all over the image.

Clues. There are many types of evidence in an image from props to people but it’s the sum total of them that often results in an identification. In this picture the following details provide a time frame.

  • The wicker chairs. They were popular props in the 1890s and in the early 20th century.
  • Animal skin rugs. Also common in pictures in the 1890s and persist into the early 20th century and beyond. We have pictures of endless bare-bottomed babies in our family photographed on animal skinned rugs in the mid-20th century.
  • Clothing clues:

In the 1890s men wore their hair short, their mustaches trimmed and waxed and their collars up. In the first decade of the 20th century, the majority of young men were clean-shaven.

Mom’s puffy sleeves date from the late 1890s. Her pompadour style puffy hair looks more like the circa 1905 period but this could be a personal preference rather than the current style. Additional genealogical information is needed to narrowly date this image.

  • The photo imprint. J.W. Sires of Tidioute, Pennsylvania took this picture. Unfortunately, he’s not listed in this location in Directory of Pennsylvania Photographers, 1839-1900 by Linda A. Ries and Jay W. Ruby (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999). He appears only as of 1890-91, and in a different location.

Donna Bowman thinks that the father in this photograph is one of her great-grandfather’s brothers, but isn’t sure. There’s one way to narrow down the possibilities: Find the family in the 1900 census. Let’s hope her great-grandfather didn’t have 12 brothers!

The ages of the children in the census would pinpoint a more-specific year for the picture. The babies in this image are 1 to 3 years old.

I can’t wait to hear back from Donna!

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