Photo Detective Mailbag

Photo Detective Mailbag

Answers to readers' photo questions.

In most Identifying Family Photographs columns, I feature a single image. But at the rate I’m receiving your photos, I’ll never get caught up! For the next couple of columns, instead of focusing on one in-depth topic, I’m going to answer a series of reader questions.

Figure 1
“This photo was taken in 1863, and I know that it depicts my great-great-grandmother Effie Wiser Roop. Her clothing seems too elaborate for dress of that time period, though, and my husband suggested that it might be a costume from the homeland (in this case, Germany). I’d like your opinion. Thank you in advance.”
—Carol McGrath

Dear Carol,
Your great-great-grandmother is fully outfitted in an elaborate costume from the 1860s. For her portrait, she selected a dress with a hoop skirt and a matching trimmed cloak with wide bell sleeves. Her accessories include fingerless gloves, a parasol and a beautiful hat. In the 1860s, bonnets sat back from the forehead and were decorated with abundant trim.

Although German photographs often feature men and women dressed more formally than American portraits do, I believe this photo was taken in the United States. I’ve seen many American cartes de visite with the same props: balustrade and draped curtain. A photographer’s name on the back of the image would confirm where it was taken. Congratulations on owning an identified and dated picture of one of your ancestors!

Figure 2
“We have a mystery photo that our family would like to have identified. The attached is believed to have been taken in Ireland when several family members traveled there on holiday. I have checked the Ellis Island records to see if there was any overlap of passengers with what we know of our relatives.

“There is a record for a ship that arrived at Ellis Island Sept. 18, 1896, with passengers Catherine A. Bruce, age 56; Elizabeth Wainwright, age 23; and Catherine B. Wainwright, age 23. Martha Wainwright and Dr. Kennedy (the other names in this photo’s caption) were not listed. There is a woman named Kennedy, age 50, on the manifest, though. Also, we have no Kennedys in our family line, so we are unsure of the relationship if the gentleman is indeed ‘Dr. Kennedy.’ And strangely, the port of departure was Hamburg. What do you think?”
—Erin Ennis

Dear Erin,
I typed part of the photographer’s imprint visible on your picture into Google and discovered that Giant’s Causeway is a place in County Antrim, Ireland. It’s a natural formation often visited by tourists. The photographer, “Lee,” had two studios, one of which was at Giant’s Causeway, where this picture was taken.

The large leg o’mutton sleeves worn by the women in this portrait date the image to about 1896, when sleeves were at their fullest. This clothing clue is consistent with some of the information you provided.

As far as passenger lists go, you may have stumbled upon your family’s Ellis Island arrival record. Ellis Island operated as a port of entry from 1892 to 1954, and you can search the port’s records at The notation for Hamburg is not that unusual. In fact, the Hamburg passenger lists came in two forms. The direct lists contain the names of individuals who left Hamburg and went directly to an overseas port. Indirect lists name passengers who embarked from Hamburg and then went to an intermediate port, where they boarded another ship. It’s possible that this was the case for many of the passengers named on the arrival list you located. For more information on tracing your immigrant ancestors, consult Sharon DeBartolo Carmack’s Discovering Your Immigrant & Ethnic Ancestors (Betterway Books).

Figure 3
“This picture is a reproduction from an old tintype that my grandma had stored away. We were sure that she would recognize the family from the reproduction, but she cannot. A time frame might help. Thank you.”
—Paula Smith

Dear Paula,
Rather than rely on costume clues for this photograph, I’d try to identify the young women standing behind the couple. They appear to be twins, and are dressed identically. Do you have any multiple births in your family tree?

The man is dressed for outside work, with a work shirt, vest and high boots, probably for farm work. All the women are wearing simple dresses with small collars and their hair pulled back off their faces. I’d estimate the picture was taken between 1900 and 1910.

I’m confused about your assertion that this image is a copy of a tintype. This picture is a contact print from a glass negative. Note the dark patch in the upper left corner, where the negative was missing a piece when printed.

I hope you’ve enjoyed seeing the types of questions and images submitted for identification. In the next column, I’ll tackle a few more.

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