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A photo mystery is the sum total of its clues, whether those hints come in the form of photographic technology, props or fashions. All of these elements are important to unraveling the story behind this holiday image.
Genealogist Tim Doyle has a whopping 11,000 family pictures, a collection of images he inherited from his four great-grandparents. As a youngster, he’d sit with them identifying the photographs, but some remain a puzzle. This picture, offering a peek at a family Christmas celebration, is just one of the mysteries.
Christmas trees weren’t part of American holiday festivities until after the 1840s, when German and English immigrants brought the tradition with them to the United States. Ornaments became popular after Woolworth’s sold German-manufactured ones in 1880. Within a decade, tree-trimming had become a $25 million industry.
In her book Encyclopedia of Christmas (Omnigraphics), Tanya Gulevich writes that President Teddy Roosevelt worried about the environmental impact of Americans using so many Christmas trees. He refused to decorate one at the White House until reassured that America’s forests could withstand the annual felling of evergreens.
The decorations in Doyle’s photograph suggest it was taken during the holiday season, but what he really wants to know is the identities of the people pictured. Doyle hopes the two seated, older individuals are Nathaniel Chandler Allen (1822-1887) and his wife Emeline S. (Johnson) Allen (1844-1920) of Willow Bend, Ill.
Based on the clues outlined on the next page, including the clothing and use of flash photography, this photograph was taken about 1905—ruling out Doyle’s tentative identity for the older man.
Estimating ages in a photo can be difficult for several reasons: The pace at which a person appears to age can vary, and the person’s pose and distance from the camera can disguise his or her real age. Finally, an illness can prematurely age a subject’s appearance. The woman in the back could be in her late teens or early 20s. The age of the man standing next to her is harder to estimate, but I can tell he has no gray in his mustache or hair. Although this photo likely shows a family grouping with parents or grandparents in the front, it’s unclear how the two people standing in the back are related.
The names of these folks have so far proven elusive for Doyle, but with so many photographs in his family collection, he may have another, already-identified image of one of these folks. Finding such a picture could be the clue to unlocking their identities.
1. According to The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography (Routledge), several patents were issued in the 1890s for devices to artificially light a photo. The lighting focused on the group clearly shows that the photographer used “flash” photography.
2. It’s always useful to examine walls and furniture in the background for framed family images. Unfortunately, the framed items here are only partially visible.
3. The young woman wears a light-colored dress with a wide yoke, high collar and full sleeves. The older woman wears a short jacket over her dress. Both styles date from about 1905.
4. The man standing is formally dressed in a suit with a high-collared shirt. He sports a a neatly trimmed mustache and glasses. The older man is in work clothes—a tab-collared shirt and casual trousers with a vest and jacket. Both are typical for the first decade of the 1900s.
5. Visible beneath the small tree are ferns, a standard houseplant in the Victorian home. The tree may be propped up on a table. Decorations include an angel topper and paper flower ornaments.
6. The same flower ornaments are strung across the room and attached to the curtains. Stores sold paper flowers, and directions for making them appeared in popular books such as Flora E. Manchester’s Paper Flower Making: A Kindergarten Occupation for Girls and Infants (1901). This could be a clue to someone’s hobby or occupation.
From the December 2014 Family Tree Magazine