“Reading” a Family Photo Album

By Maureen A. Taylor

I love a good story, don’t you? Every photo album tells one if you know where to look. The arrangement of the images is a key part of unraveling the threads of the tale.

If you’re like Daniel Gwinn, you probably inherited a family photo album with few (if any) identified photos. Here’s how to approach this very common photographic brick wall.

  • Start with provenance. Who owned the album before you? Who owned it before them? The ownership of the album can help you determine from which branch of the family it descends.
  • Who’s on the first page? OK, so you might not immediately know the answer to this question, but this person can unlock the whole album. The person in the number one spot is a very important person to the creator of the album. It could be a mother, a father, a husband, a child or in a few instances, it’s the creator of the album. Place this photo in a time frame by studying photographic format, clothing and any other clues that are in the image.
  • Who’s next? The individuals closest to the front are also very important to the person who laid out the album. Generally, husbands and wives are grouped together on adjacent pages.
  • Not everyone in the album is necessarily family. Nineteenth-century individuals collected photographs of family, friends, neighbors and even famous persons. Your album might be a mix of these.

Each album starts with good intentions. The person placing the photos in the book likely had a plan for at least the first half of it. I’ve seen a lot of family photo albums and they have those good intentions in common—but by the end of the album, images are usually jumbled.

Like any good book, it’s best to begin at the beginning. Don’t jump around or rush to the ending. Each page needs to be studied and placed in a time frame and a place. Photographer’s imprints can help you place an image geographically. Every little detail can assist in the identification.

In Daniel’s case, the album came to him through his great aunt Elsie Hornberger. It belonged to her grandmother. He knows that most of the individuals in it are members of the Rock family, with origins in Lancaster County, Pa. He’s submitted two tintypes that are complete mysteries.

Tintypes were patented in 1856 and remained common until the 1930s.


A few details in this picture place it in a time frame:

  • The fringed velvet chair. This is a photographer’s prop. Chairs like it appear in photographs taken all over the United States. I’ve never seen it in a photo taken before the late 1860s.
  • The woman wears a bodice called a polanaise with long ends that drape down over the skirt. In many cases, the skirt has ruffles and ruching. This woman’s skirt is plain.
  • This photo dates from approximately 1869 to 1875.
  • Dan thinks the woman could be Caroline Rock Cooper, born in 1828. That would make this woman’s age in her 40s

I love the little book on her lap. It appears to have a plush cover and a round medallion on it.

rock book.jpg

There’s something else that’s interesting. Did you notice that the picture is reversed? Unless a photographer used a reversal lens, early images are mirrored. Here’s the book with the reversal fixed.

book reversed.jpg

Here’s the whole image with the reversal fixed.


She holds the book with her right hand and her left arm rests on the chair.

Dan’s second photo show a little girl smiling for the photographer sitting in the same chair.

Girl Rock  002.jpg

It’s obviously the same studio because it’s an identical rug and chair. The hat is great! It has a wide brim, mid-size crown and features feathers and a velvet ribbon and bow. In the late 1860s, little girls wore dresses similar to those worn by their mothers. The yoked bodice and small ruffled collar point to this image being taken around the same time as the first picture, of the woman. The big question is, “Who is she?”

  • She’s probably around 10 years of age.
  • She’s not Caroline’s daughter, Mary Ann, who was born in 1852. Mary Ann would be 18 in 1870

While the older woman could be Caroline Rock Cooper, it also could be someone else in the family. It’s unlikely that the girl is Caroline’s daughter.

In order to solve this mystery, Dan needs to examine his family tree for a girl born in approximately 1860. These two photos could be mother and daughter, so locating a girl born in that year could solve both of his photo mysteries.

For more information on solving family photo album puzzles, see my book Family Photo Detective.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album