Cathy Quiles knows one of the people in this tintype is her great-aunt because her grandmother told her so, but which one? Is she one of the kids or one of the women? Quiles tried to figure out who’s who, but can’t tell the boys from the girls.
Until the 20th century, mothers dressed boys and girls alike in long, loose gowns. Short skirts made diaper changes and potty training easier for toddlers, and gave them freedom to run around. By about 5 years of age, boys began to wear short pants while girls stayed in dresses. Hair for both sexes was long throughout the toddler years, but once boys were in pants they sported short cuts. There’s one exception: The “Little Lord Fauntleroy” look of the late 19th and early 20th century saw boys in velvet pants, frilly collared shirts and long ringlets.
This photograph shows two women, two girls standing in the back row, two boys in the front and a baby. Here’s how it breaks down:
- The women could be friends posing together with their children, sisters, or a mother and daughter. The woman holding the infant is wearing a dress with large leg o’ mutton sleeves—a key photo-dating detail—from around 1896. Their small hats with high ribbons and feathers are typical for the era. The dress on the older woman in the back features vertically puffed sleeves and a bodice reminiscent of the early 1890s.
- The two girls in the back are wearing simpler versions of period dress. Their hats with large flat brims and simple trim are common in fashion magazines and store catalogs from the 1890s.
- The two boys are recognizable because of their hair and clothing. The boy on the left is wearing a modified Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit—short jacket and ruffled broad collared shirt. Plain pants, everyday shoes and a boy’s cap on his head complete his attire. The younger boy is in short pants and an everyday shirt with a small collar. Both boys have short hair without parts.
Use these clues to tell boys from the girls in group portraits:
- Boys wore their hair parted on the side; girls’ hair was parted in the middle. That’s a quick way to see who’s who. Neither of the boys in this photo had hairstyles with parts, but their short cuts and their outfits provide the evidence to sort out the sexes.
- Even if all the children are in dresses, girls’ outfits usually have more trim. Be careful, though: Sometimes clothing was handed down from one toddler to another regardless of sex. Books such as JoAnne Olian’s Children’s Fashions 1860-1912 (Dover, $12.95) are particularly helpful.
Identifying all the members of a group portrait is a matter of picking an obvious detail, then consulting genealogical information. To identify the individuals in this family, Quiles should start with the baby and look in her research for children born between 1896 and 1898.
Knowing the baby’s name will likely lead to the name of the woman holding him or her. Matching the family groups based on the ages of the siblings should help confirm whether all the children are part of a single family, or they’re split between the women. The rest should fall into place.