Twentieth-Century Childhood Fashion

By Maureen A. Taylor

Kyndahl Carlson’s aunt is writing down all the family stories she can remember. A family photo album in a cousin’s collection may contain key details to add to those tales.

The album may have belonged to the cousin’s grandmother, Ruth Scrivner Laughter. The photos are laid out with the elders first, followed by images of Kyndahl’s grandmother and Ruth’s children and grandchildren.

The context of the way all the images in an album are presented can tell you about who’s important to the person who created the album, and can yield identification clues based on which photos are on which pages. I haven’t seen the whole album, but I can add a few details about the individual images.

This timeless photo of three children lacks any information about the photographer, but the clothing clues and chair help date the picture.

The boys wear suits popular from about 1899 to World War I. There were subtle variations in the design of these suits over time, including ties, belts and different insignia. The insignia here is an abstract flower-like design, but I’ve also seen nautical anchors stitched into the placket of these sailor-collared outfits.

This style was also popular for girls’ dresses. The Sears Roebuck’s catalog (searchable on sold suits similar to these for approximately $2.

Because these suits were common for more than a decade, it’s hard to pinpoint a more-specific year without extensive research.

Wicker chairs as studio props first appear in the 1890s and continue in use for several decades. I own a wedding portrait from 1916 of my maternal grandfather leaning on a wicker chair.

Posing three children together suggests a close relationship between them. I think this photo shows siblings, though I’ve also seen cousins posed together. Add up the family facts first before jumping to conclusions.

Kyndahl can look at her family tree for a family with two brothers and a sister (or a brother) born close together. In the 19th century, girls wore center parts and boys wore side parts, but that’s not so clear for the 20th century. All three children in this image part their hair in the center.

The oldest boy could be about 5 years of age, the younger light-haired boy close to 3, and the baby could be 1 or 2.

Photo albums are collections of close family pictures, as well as images from friends and other relatives. There is no guarantee that these three are on the family tree. Fingers crossed!

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