Three Clues that Identify an Old Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

The clues add up differently in every photo. It’s never just one thing that helps put a name with a face. In Pat Eiler’s tintype the three clues are age, fashion and another picture.

There is no mystery as to the identity of these three people. Pat knows they are Mary Seigrist Forster (1870-1946), her mother, Mary Heffner Seigrist Schumacher (1845-1922) and George Bean. Based on the age of George, she estimates the picture taken circa 1920.

It’s this tintype that’s causing the problem. Which woman is in this picture? The mother or the daughter?

Tintypes, patented in 1856, stayed popular until the twentieth century and are still being made today. The lovely bonnet dates this picture. Peaked straw bonnets decorated with botanical elements and ribbons gave the wearer extra height and balanced off the bustled dresses. The photo studio added a bit of paint to the decoration to make it visible to the viewer.

The shape and style of this bonnet date the picture to the late 1880s, specifically circa 1889.

So who’s in the picture. Mary Schumacher born in 1845 was 44 in 1889. Her daughter Mary Forster was 19 in that year.

I find it easier to compare faces by looking at them side by side. With a little help from we can do that.

Both women have wide noses, wavy lips and a similar shaped face. But look closely. There are no age lines in this face. One woman has straight eyebrows while the other woman has brows that frame the eyes.

I think it’s the daughter. A twenty-something wearing her first grown-up bonnet. That occasion is more than enough reason to go to the photo studio but I wonder if there was a special family event in the circa 1889 period.

There is one other detail. People usually pose with similar expressions when posing for a photographer.

To look at more Victorian hats and bonnets consult, Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900.

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