Photo Detective: Collected Evidence

Photo Detective: Collected Evidence

Helen Kesinger owns a special family treasure. It's a photograph album with an inscription: "Atchison, KS, Sept. 30, 1877. Dear Louise! Accept this album as a token of kind remembrance of your true and affectionate grandmother, Wilhelmine Scherer." This token of affection from a grandmother to her granddaughter...

Helen Kesinger owns a special family treasure. It’s a photograph album with an inscription: “Atchison, KS, Sept. 30, 1877. Dear Louise! Accept this album as a token of kind remembrance of your true and affectionate grandmother, Wilhelmine Scherer.” This token of affection from a grandmother to her granddaughter is essentially a pictorial history of the family. The album contains photographs of Wilhelmine and her adult children with their spouses, including Louise’s mother and father. Although most of the images are identified, this lovely portrait of an elderly woman is a mystery. Unraveling the clues involves the usual techniques of examining costumes and the front and back of the image, as well as considering why the album was created and for whom.

Album Content
What was the intent of this album? Did Scherer gather the images to make this gift, or was it compiled over time? We can partially answer the second question by establishing when the album itself was manufactured. Look inside both covers for a stamped date or manufacturer’s name. For example, a manufacture date later than the pictures inside the album signifies they were placed into the album at one time, rather than gradually added.

Since 19th-century albums tend to be a mix of different types of images—family and friends as well as collectible portraits of famous personalities —the next step is to look at the order of the pictures and their content. Are they arranged chronologically or by family group? Evidence of a pattern like the latter one can suggest the album was deliberately laid out. Kesinger can apply these questions to her album. The answers might not help date the photo shown here, but her investigations will tell the album’s story and yield identification clues. For instance, if all the images depict family members, the unidentified woman is likely a relative. But if they’re a jumble of various people, Kesinger may face difficulty proving a relationship between Scherer and this lady.

Costume
This woman is wearing fingerless crocheted mitts, a common accessory of the 1860s. Her dress with the rounded collar, jacket with trim and large hoop earrings also are from the 1860s. The cap on the back of her head is from the same time period and was typical attire for older women—with one difference. Daycaps like the ones shown in a previous Identifying Family Photographs feature long ties, but other cap styles generally don’t. This lady’s cap appears to be her own innovation.

Photographer
According to Biographies of Western Photographers (Carl Mautz, $50.00) by Carl Mautz, photographer J.M. Munn appears in Atchison in 1872, but he probably was there earlier. The clothing evidence strongly points to the picture being taken in the 1860s, as does the style of the card itself. Cartes de visite with double-lined borders were common from 1861 through 1869.

Other Clues
The lack of a revenue stamp on the back of this image suggests it wasn’t taken between Aug. 1, 1864, and Aug. 1, 1866, when photographs were taxed. Creating a family tree chart of all named images from the album and comparing facial features to this person may result in identification. Kesinger can double-check the identification against the person’s birth and death dates to be sure she’d be the right age for this portrait.

If you’re interested in other people’s albums, read Martha Langford’s exploration of them in Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums (McGill-Queens, $42.95). It’s fun peek into other people’s lives.

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