Photo Detective: Picture Puzzle

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Identifying family photographs for this column has been a wonderful experience. Almost every day, someone invites me to look at a photograph in his or her collection, and we work together to solve the photo mystery. This partnership usually starts with an e-mail request similar to Nancy Mitchell’s: “Can you tell me about when this photo was taken and what type it is?” She attached this lovely photograph of a young woman (Figure1) to her message.

Over the past few months, Mitchell and I have corresponded via e-mail several times. But no matter how many times we’ve compared pictures and clues, we haven’t been able to positively identify the woman in this picture. Despite her extensive research, Mitchell doesn’t have enough genealogical clues to help me solve this puzzle. This is a common problem when I try to identify readers’ photos. I can explain the photographic method, determine when a photographer was in business and judge costume details, but I can’t fill in the blanks on your family tree&#151at least, not without your help.

Mitchell found the image in a collection of photographs owned by a now-deceased aunt. She asked family whether the woman pictured here could be her great-grandmother who died in 1893 at the age of 41. At the time of her death, Mitchell’s grandfather was only 7, so he never really knew her. In fact, Mitchell’s mother didn’t even know her name. Yet, the strong resemblance between Mitchell’s mother and this woman has led the family to believe that this might be a picture of the great-grandmother.

As regular readers of this column know, it’s the sum of all the photographic clues that dates an image. Here’s the evidence in Mitchell’s picture:

  • Photographer’s imprint: The photographer’s name wasn’t printed on this image, so I cannot determine a time frame based on his years of business.

  • Photographic method: This image is a standard paper photograph and could reasonably date from the late 19th through early 20th century. The size of the image doesn’t narrow the time frame.

  • Family stories: Mitchell hopes that this is a picture of her great-grandmother, but the only detail she knows about the image is that it was taken in Scotland.

I e-mailed Mitchell for additional information on her great-grandmother Jane McAllen Stephen Noble. She quickly responded with full genealogical information regarding Jane’s marriage to George Noble in Fraserburgh, Scotland; her death from pneumonia; and George’s death a few years later. These events left Mitchell’s grandfather, the youngest of nine, an orphan; his older sisters raised him. In 1910, Mitchell’s grandfather, Steven Noble, married Jessie Ann Crawford, and they subsequently had several children.

Given this new information, I began to sort through the few costume clues in the image. The two pieces of attire that suggest a date for the picture are her hat and fur stole. An advertisement from a 1904 magazine reprinted in Vintage Hats & Bonnets 1770-1970: Identification & Values by Susan Langley (Collector Books, $24.95) features a similar hat, so it appears that this photograph was taken between 1900 and 1910. Both the hat and the fur stole were fashionable in the early 20th century.

Based on this time frame, I told Mitchell that the woman in the picture could be her grandmother Jessie Ann Crawford Noble, but not her great-grandmother Jane. She then sent me a wedding picture of Steven Noble and Jessie Crawford (Figure 2). Jessie bears a resemblance to the woman in Figure 1; however, Jessie had dark eyes, and the woman in the hat appears to have light eyes.

So who is the woman in the picture? Mitchell doesn’t know. It could be her grandfather’s sister Elizabeth Noble or, given the facial similarities between Jessie and the unknown woman, a member of the Crawford family. At this point, we hope that posting the image online will lead to additional information and identification.

Even though she had done extensive family research, Mitchell and I couldn’t fit the pieces of this puzzle together. Without her help, though, I wouldn’t have been able to write this column and make assertions about possible identifications. I look forward to my next column and building another online friendship with an owner of an unidentified photograph.