Judy Miller sent a long note explaining who she thought was in the portrait. She was really hoping this picture shows her great-great-grandmother, Mary Jane Adams Waters, born about 1810, her great-grandmother Eleanor Waters Williamson, born 1847, and two of Eleanor’s sisters. As soon as I clicked on the picture I knew this wasn’t the case.
Putting two and two together in a photo identification puzzle is about adding up when and where to make a who. So before I look at pictures you send, I read through the e-mail looking for bits of information that will help me identify or date them. Though some photo mysteries are difficult (I have an inbox of inquiries waiting to be solved) others are ah-ha moments—photos quickly dated due to one overwhelming detail. A single fact can prove or disprove an assumption.
In this photo, that detail is the woman’s hat—it immediately dates the picture. It’s almost identical to one that appeared in an August 1885 Peterson’s Magazine fashion plate titled, The Cliffs at Newport. This style hat was usually part of a costume worn to a seaside resort. The costume adds details to the story behind this picture.
While the “when” in this picture is 1885, figuring out the “where” is a result of looking at the other clues in the picture. Even without a photographer’s name and address, it’s possible to deduce where a picture was taken using the following clues:
Look at the background.
In this picture, the family posed in front of a painted backdrop of a beach scene. Studios and itinerant photographers sought new business in resort communities by using scenic backdrops that encouraged customers to sit for a portrait as a souvenir.
Watch for props.
The pails and shovels held by the older children confirm that this was taken near the seashore. When set against the backdrop, these props created a sense of the scene being real.
Focus on Fashion
Fashion plates in popular 19th century magazines set costumed figures in a scene illustrating when certain outfits should be worn. This woman followed their advice by outfitting herself in appropriate attire for a stroll along the boardwalk of a shore resort. She stopped along the way to sit for this charming family picture, complete with a squirming baby.
In addition to having a date for this picture, Judy Miller now knows her relative was fashion conscious and took her children to the beach. All she has left to do is name the women. Identifying them now relies on which relative had a baby, a child of preschool age and one in elementary school in the mid-1880s. Her great grandmother Jane, or Jane’s sister Rebecca (born in 1838), could be the mother in this family. Only genealogical research will provide the evidence. <!–