You’ve searched fruitlessly for proof your ancestors actually married, and you’re starting to think they were living in sin. In the absence of written documentation, though, you can look for another convincing piece of evidence: a wedding picture. Large group portraits such as this one weren’t common until the 1900s — but they give you extra reason to rejoice: If you can figure out the names of the happy couple in the center, the rest of the identifications will fall blissfully into place. You’ll be party to wedding photo success when you marry your genealogical research with advice.
All dressed up
Start by dating your wedding pictures based on clothing clues. Since a bride would sometimes wear her mother’s or gown, however, don’t draw any conclusions until you’ve looked at everyone’s attire. Women’s clothing varied more than men’s over time, so it’s usually easier to date. Compare key details such as the shapes of sleeves and bodices to outfits shown in costume encyclopedias; my favorite is Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer (Kent State University Press). You also can study wedding pictures from 1900 to 1920 at Victoriana.com www.victoriana.com/bridal/bridal6.htm>. The dresses women are wearing in this photo date to around 1900.
Although multiple attendants were less common for our ancestors than for modern brides and grooms, you can look for matching dresses and suits to pick out the members of the wedding party. This couple had flower girls with identical white dresses, hats and bouquets. Two bridesmaids are easy to spot, too: They’re attired in matching gowns and standing one behind the other over the groom’s shoulder.
What you can learn about an image doesn’t stop with a date. In group wedding portraits, photographers usually posed wedding parties in a traditional arrangement: The groom sat to the bride’s right with their respective parents beside them, and siblings close by. Generally, the closer someone is to the couple, the closer the relationship, making it easy to figure out who’s in the immediate family. We see a slight variation in this picture-a woman, probably the groom’s sister, occupies the spot next to him, followed by his parents. Beside the bride are her parents and a woman who, based on her age, is probably an aunt.
You can sometimes tell who’s related to whom by examining each person’s facial features and looking for matches. (It helps to scan the image at a high resolution and zoom in on the details.) This groom’s narrow jaw, large ears and distinctive nose appear elsewhere in the picture: The woman to his right has his nose, and the fellow behind him shares all three features. It’s more difficult to pick out the bride’s side of the family, but you can tell the ring bearer, sitting front and center, shares her nose, eyes and face shape. Some people here don’t resemble anyone, so it’s likely in-laws and friends are present. Of course, you won’t be able to make many hard-and fast conclusions using this method, but you can hazard some guesses to confirm in genealogical records.
Not all identification clues are in the image. Based on the way this unidentified image is signed, “With love and best wishes from Maud and Arthur,” it must’ve been a gift from the bride and groom. If you have a photo with a similar message, network with cousins to turn up duplicates, one of which may have names on the back or an owner who knows something about it. You might even come across a guest book or gift register listing people who attended the wedding and may have posed for the portrait.
With these clues in hand, examine your family group sheets and pedigree charts for couples married around the estimated photo date, with siblings and parents of the right ages. Your genealogy research will be one step closer to happily ever after.
1 Get cozy. People standing or seated nearest the couple probably are close relatives.
2 Costume party. Identical outfits give away the members of the wedding party.
3 Clothing in. The women’s sleeves and bodices date this photo to the early 1900s.
4 Face the truth. Similar features can suggest who’s related.