Photo Detective: Precious Clues

Photo Detective: Precious Clues

I'm fascinated by the jewelry in family photographs: A single accessory can verify a relationship, confirm a date for the image and even lead to a positive identification. In addition, the style and significance of jewelry can open new avenues of genealogical research. For instance, a ring worn on the...

I’m fascinated by the jewelry in family photographs: A single accessory can verify a relationship, confirm a date for the image and even lead to a positive identification. In addition, the style and significance of jewelry can open new avenues of genealogical research. For instance, a ring worn on the fourth finger of the left hand usually indicates marriage. If you didn’t know the subject of a portrait was married, this clue—combined with a photographer’s imprint (name and place of business)—could lead you to a missing marriage record.

Yet, interpreting the evidence in jewelry is only possible if you know something about the accessory. Knowing whether the jewelry was symbolic or purely ornamental can help you determine why it was worn for a portrait. Vance Erskine submitted this picture because he wants to know the significance of the jewelry worn in 1880 by his ancestor Almira Erskine. Let’s start with the basics. Here are a few types of jewelry found in photographs:

Photographic
Throughout the history of photography (beginning with the daguerreotype in the 1840s), people have placed pictures in jewelry. Worn by men, women and children, photographic jewelry lends itself to a variety of settings, depending on the sex and age of the wearer. Women generally have selected pins, lockets, rings, bracelets and coat buttons. Men have favored keywinds (used to wind watches), watch fobs, rings, cufflinks, stickpins and coat buttons. Wearing photographic jewelry in a portrait is one way to include someone who couldn’t be present when the picture was taken. It’s evidence of a relationship between the person in the jewelry and the wearer. If you spot photographic jewelry in a portrait of an ancestor, try to identify both the subject of the jewelry and the subject of the portrait.

Heirloom
In their portraits, some of our ancestors wore jewelry from earlier decades. You might find mention of heirloom jewelry in probate records. Or ask older family members about patterns of inheritance. The jewelry probably won’t help you date the picture, but it can create a link between family members—such as a mother, daughter and granddaughter who wore the same jewelry in their portraits. If you have a piece of inherited jewelry, carefully look over your images to see if you can determine the original owner.

Symbolic
Men’s jewelry can indicate military service or membership in a fraternal, religious or patriotic organization. Some jewelry acts as proof of employment. In several portraits, my grandmother and her sister proudly wore watches they had bought with their own earnings. My grandmother also wore a friendship locket. Women have long exchanged lockets and pendants as tokens of their friendship. Starr Ockenga explores this topic in her book On Women & Friendship: A Collection of Victorian Keepsakes and Traditions (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, out of print)

Ornamental
All jewelry is ornamental. And jewelry design changes as often as the shape of women’s sleeves or the width of men’s ties. Knowing the time period in which an accessory was made is another step toward identifying a portrait. My column “A Weighty Accessory” describes how a necklace helped determine the time frame for a picture.

To date jewelry, consult resources that illustrate the history of accessories. Joan Severa mentions jewelry in Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 (Kent State University Press, $60). Other good resources are A History of Jewelry 1100-1870 by Joan Evans (Dover, $22.95) and Warman’s Jewelry, 2nd edition, by Christie Romero (Warman, $18.95). An excellent guide to accessories of the 1900s is John Peacock’s 20th Century Jewelry: The Complete Sourcebook (Thames & Hudson, $34.95).

In this photograph, the pin is strictly ornamental. Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, the horseshoe motif was popular for pins. The other pin on Almira’s bodice is a chain for her watch. Through her choices of accessories, Almira displayed an awareness of fashion at the time of her portrait. By examining the jewelry in your photographs, you might find clues to your own family history.

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