Photo Detective: A Little Help from Your Friends

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

One of the best ways to identify an image is by making it available to others. This week, rather than telling you how I solved a picture puzzle, I’d like to show you how Family Tree Magazine reader Janet Meleney is solving her own photo mystery—with a little help from her friends. Several months ago, one of Meleney’s unidentified family photographs appeared in this column (see “Bridging the Gap”). A few weeks ago, she submitted another photograph with the hope that readers like you could identify it.

The Clarendon County Archives of South Carolina plans to publish this group portrait in a community calendar, as a depiction of life in the county. It’s an interesting assembly of women with banners that say Love, Wisdom, Power and Remembrance. Each of the banners has an icon: Madonna and child for Love; a classical looking woman for Wisdom; Atlas and the world for Power; and a bush that might be mistletoe for Remembrance. In addition, each woman wears a small badge.

The most important tool in photo detective work is the ability to enlarge an image’s details using either a simple magnifying glass or a scanner. By slowly searching an image, you might uncover the elements you need to solve a picture puzzle. Before I had a chance to respond to Meleney’s e-mail, she used a scanner to enlarge the badges’ details.

A resident of Turbeville, S.C., remembered seeing a similar badge, and he identified the photographed group as members of the Cypress Grove No. 89, Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle Court. This was the women’s auxiliary of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal benefit society founded in Omaha, Neb., in 1890, and still active today.

But even with this clue, Meleney doesn’t know when the photograph was taken. According to the Woodmen of the World Web site, the Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle, founded in Omaha in 1892, merged with the Woodmen of the World in 1965. The 1892 founding provides a beginning date for the time period of this photograph, while examining the women’s clothing supplies an end date. Since women wore large leg-o-mutton sleeves in the 1890s, this image was taken after the turn of the 20th century.

When analyzing any group portrait, it’s important to find the youngest woman in the group, because young women tend to follow the contemporary fashion trends. In this picture, it’s the woman with the upswept hairstyle, third from the right. Ensembles similar to her skirt, blouse and wide belt appear in Altman’s Spring and Summer Fashions Catalog, 1915 (Dover Publications, $9.95). The length of her skirt is another important detail. At the beginning of the 20th century, skirts were floor length; they became shorter every decade until the 1960s, era of the mini-skirt. This woman’s ankle-length skirt suggests that the picture was taken between 1910 and 1920, probably around 1915, since skirts were calf length later in the decade.

Meleney is well on her way to identifying the woman in this photograph. And after seeing the image in the calendar, or in this online column, maybe someone will recognize the women or pinpoint a more exact date for the picture. To learn how to post your own pictures online—in the hope that someone can put names to the mystery faces in your photographs—read my column “Reunite with Family Photographs”. Meleney still is trying to identify the bridge in her photograph examined in “Bridging the Gap.” If anyone has a clue for her, please write to me at

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at