Photo Detective: It’s a Boy (or a Girl)

Photo Detective: It’s a Boy (or a Girl)

Judy Craven owns an adorable photograph of a toddler, but there are two problems. She can't date the picture and has no idea if the child is a boy or a girl. When her mother-in-law died, Craven and her husband inherited a bag of family photographs. Her mother-in-law took...

Judy Craven owns an adorable photograph of a toddler, but there are two problems. She can’t date the picture and has no idea if the child is a boy or a girl. When her mother-in-law died, Craven and her husband inherited a bag of family photographs. Her mother-in-law took time to pencil names on some of the images, but not this one.

Let’s see if any sense can be made of this photograph. It is definitely a paper photograph, but the photographer’s imprint, which would have appeared below the portrait, is missing. It looks as if it was ripped off. That vital clue would have enabled a search of city directories to determine when the photographer was in business and established an initial time frame for the image. Lacking information about the photographer, one must rely on costume clues.

This toddler is probably 3 or 4 years old, because at age 5 boys began to wear short pants, rather than dresses, and girls dressed more like their mothers. The style of the dress, with its prominent plaid fabric, long waist and simple details, suggests the portrait was taken in the early 1880s. While black stockings were in vogue in the 1880s, striped ones could still be purchased at discount shops. Both boys and girls wore short boots for several decades, so the shoes don’t provide clues to the time frame.

Mothers dressed young boys and girls alike, so it is difficult to tell the sex of a child just from what he or she wore. The first thing to look for is how the child’s hair is parted. Boys wore their hair parted on the side, and girls down the middle. Unfortunately, the child in this photograph has curly hair with no discernible part.

Craven thought the child’s stance seemed masculine. But young girls didn’t always assume the posture of young ladies. There are a few clues, however, that help determine the child’s sex. A straw sailor hat to match a sailor suit (note the collar in this photograph) was a popular style for boys, as was dressing in plaids. Sometimes there are subtle design differences in dresses for boys and girls. For instance, this child’s dress has few frills, while a girl’s dress from the same period usually had a ruffle along the bottom edge and some lace. After comparing this image to other photographs of children from the 1880s, it appears this child is a boy.

Craven’s next step is to compare the time frame with her genealogical notes to see if any men in her family were born in the late 1870s or early 1880s. By doing so, she might be able to put a name with this cute face.

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

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