Jo Ratliff hopes this photograph depicts her grandmother and her grandmother’s three sisters: Minnie (born 1876), Mert (born 1880), Lela (born 1882) and Mary (born 1884). But the confusing visual details make it difficult to say for sure. Sorting out the clues in this picture required searching for data in several different books and then adding up the results.
Three of the girls wear their hair long and in banana curls, while the fourth has pulled her hair up with some fullness on the top. Long curls gained popularity in the mid-19th century, and again around the turn of the 20th century, according to Marian I. Doyle’s, An Illustrated History of Hairstyles, 1830-1930 (Schiffer Books, $39.95). Large hair bows, such as the one worn by the girl on the far left, are usually associated with the period 1910 to 1916. In a 1916 Ladies’ Home Journal article on “Arranging Your Little Girl’s Hair,” Ida C. Van writes, “Wider ribbon is used for an older child.” The differences in hairstyles could be a result of young women trying out different looks, the way teenagers do today.
The shoes worn by the oldest girl in this photograph (second from the left) remind me of the pointy-toed ones in style right now. Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930 by Nancy E. Rexford (Kent State University Press, $60) provides helpful illustrations for dating footwear. These shoes, with their severe points and chunky heels, suggest a time frame of 1900 to 1910. The only other shoes visible in the picture are the light-colored walking boots worn by the girl on the far right; they date from the same period.
The two girls on the left wear light-colored summer dresses, but the details aren’t visible. The other two girls obviously like plaid; one wears a dress with a wide collar. Several plaid outfits (dating from 1900 to 1905) appear in Kristina Harris’s The Child in Fashion, 1750-1920 (Schiffer Books, $29.95), but they don’t match the styles worn here. The outfits worn for this portrait could be handmade variations of the current fashion.
The two girls on the left wear light-colored summe The railroad tracks and small building in the background could help determine when the picture was taken. Around 1900, the family moved from Fayetteville, Ark., to a town in Indian Territory. It would help to look at old pictures of the train station in Fayetteville, as well as the town where the family moved next, and compare the details to this picture. The Arkansas Historical Association may be able to direct Ratliff to an appropriate resource in that area. It will take additional genealogical research to determine where the family lived in Indian Territory.
Given the evidence, it’s quite possible that this image depicts two groups of friends, rather than four sisters. If the photograph was taken around 1900, then the eldest sister would be 24, and the youngest 16. Because of the youthful hairstyles, I’m not sure that anyone in this picture is in her 20s. Women of that age would have worn their hair up, rather than in long curls. I believe this image depicts two sets of best friends, dressed similarly to represent their friendship.
Comparing this picture to a group picture of Ratliff’s aunts and mother confirms that at least two of the girls are related to her. Ratliff thinks the girl on the far right resembles her Aunt Cheek, and I think the second girl from the left is the other sister.
There are plenty of unanswered questions regarding this picture. Ratliff is going to ask a relative for additional information. If she solves the mystery, I’ll publish an update.