The Most Important Question To Ask Cousins About Old Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Way back in the 1990s, Roma Bennett’s cousin gave her this photo.

At the time her cousin told her she didn’t know anything about this tintype. Hmmm. In my experience, people usually know something about a picture, but they don’t know they know it until you ask the right question.

The most important question to ask about an image is:

Who owned this photo before you did?

This may seem like a teeny-weeny question, but the answer will set you on the right branch of the family to make the identification.

In Roma’s case, how she’s related to that cousin is important. The photo could be from their mutual family tree, or from an unrelated branch on her cousin’s other parent’s side.

There can be a lot of unknowns with a photo, starting with who’s in it. Most individuals remember where they originally saw the picture (on a grandparent’s mantel), where they found it (in a deceased person’s things), or who gave it to them.

I hope it’s not too late for Roma to ask her cousin that question.

Photo Clues

Roma’s picture is a tintype that’s seen it’s share of wear and tear and has darkened over time. I’ve tweaked it using photo-editing software to better see the details.

The woman’s skirt with all those layers of ruffles and her neck scarf suggest a date of about 1878.

The props and backdrop don’t help much to refine the date. Painted backdrops were popular in this period. The fringed chair first appeared in studios in the 1860s and remained a fixture for a couple of decades. The cloth-covered table was common in pictures beginning in the 1840s.

This young couple were either married or siblings. The hand on the shoulder is a symbol of a close relationship.

After reaching out to her cousin, Roma could look at her family tree for marriages in the 1878 period. It should help narrow down the possibilities of who’s in the picture. Maybe her cousin has other pictures of this couple later in life.

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
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