Which Grandmother is It?

By Maureen A. Taylor

I own an old “crayon picture” and you might, too. They were extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. It’s a photo and a piece of artwork. Photographers hired artists to charcoal these oversize pictures, which held a place of honor in a family home.

Joan Klein owns this one. Her father told her it was his grandmother. The problem is, which one?

There are two possibilities:

  • Agnes Almeda Smith Steck, born 25 March 1858 died 08 December 1907 at age 49.
  • Mary Isabella Bruner Gordner, born 28 April 1853 died 15 November 1933 at age 80.

All of us have at least two grandmothers, a maternal one and a paternal one. Joan’s father didn’t specify which grandmother he meant. This particular picture dates from c. 1900, when women wore their hair piled on the tops of their head and dresses had high necklines ringed with lace.

The big problem in identifying this woman is that Joan’s great-grandmothers were born within five years of each other.

There are other things to consider, as well.

One of my grandmother’s died when I was one and I didn’t know her. When people ask me about grandparents, I always talk about the one I knew. Perhaps that’s what happened in Joan’s family—”Grandmother” could have been the one who lived the longest.

Of course, there’s a chance this portrait was made around the time Agnes died, as a type of memorial.

The only way to know for sure who’s in this picture is to find known photos of Agnes and Mary, or even photographs of the siblings of the women.

Listening to family stories might help, too. This thin, aristocratic looking woman may have looked very different from the other grandmother.

I’d reach out to other descendants of the two women in hopes of either hearing tales or finding photos. Someone else in the family might even have a copy of this picture … with a name on it.

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