Photo Detective: Determining the Occasion

Photo Detective: Determining the Occasion

What's pictured in a photo doesn't always tell the whole story.

Every photograph has an anecdote, but the details of the image don’t always tell the tale. Sheree T. Edington submitted this photograph of Andrew Jackson Boruff (born in 1842) and Orphia Ann Collinsworth (born in 1844). The picture is only part of their story.

There’s nothing sophisticated about this charming portrait of an elderly couple. An itinerant photographer posed them standing on dirt in front of a sheet hung on a rough planked cabin wall. The woman draped a shawl over her shoulders and still has a dish towel on her belt. She wears a long, simple dress and a scarf around her neck; an outfit difficult to date due to the couple’s age and limited economic means. Older and less-well-to-do women often wore dresses long after contemporary fashion had moved on. I’m guessing this dress dates to the early 20th century.

Edington knows the Boruffs married Nov. 14, 1878, in Union County Tenn., when they were in their 30s. The flowers here initially led her to think this was their wedding portrait, except they’re obviously elderly. Now she’s confused. Just what’s the story here?

When you know the names of the people in a portrait, genealogical research usually turns up relevant information. In this case, a quick search of Ancestry.com‘s US census records for Andrew Jackson Boruff resulted in several hits. The 1880 and 1900 censuses lists Orphia as his wife. In 1900, Orphia and Andrew told the enumerator they’d been married 20 years, confirming the match.

By the 1910 census, Andrew appears living with a son, a daughter-in-law and their child. Orphia died Oct. 13, 1903; Andrew lived until Sept. 30, 1930.

The real issue is whether or not this portrait shows Andrew with Orphia before 1903. In 1900, the couple was in their late 50s and by 1903, both are approximately 60. This couple looks older, but aging is a guessing game that relies on genetics, lifestyle and illnesses. Edington can compare aging rates in her family by looking at photographs of other elderly relatives.

This woman could be Orphia shortly before her death, but there’s another possibility. In the 1870 US census, Andrew Jackson Boruff is listed with a wife, Elizabeth, and their children. Orphia was his second wife. Before accepting these people are Orphia and Andrew, Edington should look at marriage records for Union County to see if Andrew married a third time. Although flowers appear in photos as a common prop, they’re used most often in wedding pictures. There’s definitely more to this image than meets the eye. <!–

Watch for props. –><!–

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