Photo Detective: Photo Genesis

Photo Detective: Photo Genesis

Family Bibles often contain much more than scripture: You might find interior pages inscribed with genealogical information, valuable letters or documents related to family business or, sometimes, a few family photos stored between the pages. The combination of photographs, genealogy and the details of the Bible's ownership can tell a...

Family Bibles often contain much more than scripture: You might find interior pages inscribed with genealogical information, valuable letters or documents related to family business or, sometimes, a few family photos stored between the pages. The combination of photographs, genealogy and the details of the Bible’s ownership can tell a family story.

Bob Ketenheim found this portrait of a man and woman in a Bible that once belonged to the Lotz family. He thinks the woman strongly resembles his great-grandmother Minnie May (Stoke) Lotz, who was born in 1870, but suspects that the clothing might date the photo to an earlier time period. Ketenheim’s skepticism is good: You shouldn’t jump to conclusions about who’s in a photo based on where you found the picture.

This lovely tintype is a bit worn and rusty in places where the photographic emulsion has chipped off. The rust isn’t surprising given that, despite their name, tintypes — first patented in 1856 — are actually made of iron, which rusts when exposed to humidity. The photo measures 2 13/16 x 3 13/16 inches, making it close to what’s known as a sixth plate (usually 2 3/4 x 3 1/4). This size tintype was popular from about 1856 to 1870. For more information on tintype sizing, see The American Tintype by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart and Robert W. Wagner (Ohio University Press).

The couple looks as if they were walking by the photography studio and impulsively stepped in for a portrait. The clues in the picture (outlined at right) suggest it dates from the late 1860s or early 1870s. That means the woman isn’t the right age to be Minnie — but it’s possible the couple could be her parents, William Stoke (1828-1904) and Margaret (Wentz) Stoke (1829-1892). William Stoke was a successful contractor in Altoona, Pa. Minnie was the youngest of his and Margaret’s nine children. If this picture depicts the Stokes, they would be in their 40s when it was taken. A theory for this picture solves three other photo mysteries also owned by the family. Read more at the Photo Detective Blog.

  1. Look for personality in a picture. This man holds a cigar in his right hand — it’s possible he carried one with him everywhere. The woman appears happy to be posing; she has a slight smile on her face.
  2. The woman holds a bonnet that would frame her face and extend in the back to cover her neck. The light cotton fabric of her dress and bonnet suggests this couple posed in warm weather.
  3. Ketenheim thinks the wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat looks like a hat worn by some Civil War regiments. One of the possible identities for the man is a relative who fought for the Union.
  4. The woman wears an ordinary cotton housedress. She’s even wearing an apron, something you don’t usually see in a formal portrait.
  5. Photo studios had an eclectic mix of painted backdrops and props. In this case, the backdrop depicts an outdoor scene. On the floor is a threadbare woven carpet. The man sits in an upholstered chair with a fringed arm. This style of chair was a popular accessory in studios after the Civil War.
  6. The man is well-dressed in an outfit of tubular-shaped striped pants; a fitted, shawl-collared vest; a tie; and a striped jacket. This style of clothing was common in the late 1860s, while the man’s droopy mustache was common from the late 1860s through the 1880s.

Got a mystery photo in your family? Submit the image and your story following the instructions here. It might appear on the Photo Detective Blog.


From the September 2011 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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