Photo Detective: Mistaken for Jake

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Barbara Jean McNamara’s grandmother always referred to the man in this portrait as “Jake.” But there are two Jakes in the Baptiste family tree, and McNamara doesn’t know which one is pictured here—Jacob Pierre Baptiste (1795-1877) or his son Jacob Pierre Baptiste Jr. (1822-1899). She thinks the image depicts the elder Jake.

This picture is a tintype, a sheet of iron coated with photographic chemicals and later varnished. As the varnish ages, it darkens, sometimes obscuring the picture on the metal plate. First produced in 1856, tintypes were cheap and easy to make. Compared to other types of images available in the mid-19th century, tintypes were considered “instantaneous.” While paper prints replaced other early photographic methods such as the daguerreotype and ambrotype, tintypes remained popular until the early 20th century. In fact, photo booths in resort areas still offer them today. Because tintypes were readily available for close to one hundred years, only the costume clues in this picture provide a time frame for the group portrait.

The women’s clothing dates this picture. (The man’s clothing is nondescript: a jacket, vest, tie and shirt worn by the vast majority of men in the 19th century.) The most obvious clothing clue is the fullness in the upper part of their sleeves, which dates the image to the early 1890s. At that time, women also wore small hats—like those pictured here—with lots of trim, including feathers, ribbons and flowers, to add height.

This picture was definitely taken before 1895. The man is Jacob Pierre Baptiste Jr., who would have been between the ages of 68 and 73. Now, the question is who are the ladies? Their poses suggest that the woman on Jacob’s left is his wife, Nancy Sarah Alexander (1820-1919), and the woman standing behind them with a hand on each of their shoulders is a daughter. She could be either Margaret (born Oct. 20, 1848) or Missouri (born June 8, 1850). Their third daughter died at a young age.

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