What Does It Take to Solve a Mystery?

By Maureen A. Taylor

Bet you’re thinking this is a good question. Solving an old photo mystery relies on different things. It all depends on the picture but there are certain family facts that help.

Denise Valentine submitted this 20th-century picture.  She’s unsure who’s in the picture but she has some ideas.

I love the expression on this woman’s face. Her pose with hand on top of the column and her straight forward gaze suggests she’s got a strong personality.

This young couple could be Denise’s grandparents but she doesn’t know for sure and no one in the family does either.  Her mother was born in 1930. Could they be her parents?  Denise’s mother gave her the photo with no information. It’s incredible to consider, but photo identifications can disappear within a generation.

The clothing immediately told me that this was a 20th century image. The young woman’s calf-length dress and cropped hair are two clues. Skirts got shorter after 1910. The 1920 passage of the 19th amendment, giving women the vote, encouraged women to cut their long locks. This hairstyle was all the rage in Hollywood too.


She wears a t-strap shoe with an ankle wrap. He wears highly polished two tone high top short boots. Her shoes were fashionable in the mid to late 1920s. Two tone shoes for men were also common in the period.

Dresses with soft ruffled collars and drop earrings like the ones she’s wearing also date from the 1920s. There were many styles and types of ties available for men throughout the early 20th century. In this case his collars lacks long points and his bow tie is small.

It looks like she has a corsage pinned to her dress.

Sunday best attire, shiny shoes and a corsage combined with their young age suggests a significant event, such as a wedding.

A good possibility, but here’s where the answer to the question in the title comes in. What do you need to solve a picture mystery?  In addition to pictorial evidence like clothing and photographic method, you need family data.

In this instance, a marriage license could help identify the picture. And vice versa. This picture suggests that a wedding took place in the late 1920s.

Denise’s mother Lillian was born in 1930. She had one older brother named after his father Walter.  Their mother was Mabel.  I’m not using their last names because their births are within 100 years (a time period usually assigned for privacy purposes).

The family lived in Coffeyville, Montgomery County, Kan. I’ve done a lot of digging and discovered that a lot of people in that area had the same last name. I may have found the right couple with their two children in the 1930 census.  At the time the couple was in their 20s—they could be the man and woman in this picture.

The next steps are to rule out other possibilities and to find other pictures of the couple at a later date.  

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