Photo Detective: Ruffled Up

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Dave Woolgar’s father left him a legacy of family photos. Though most of images are unidentified, his dad did help him note family relationships on a few. This picture of an elderly woman, for example, is captioned “great-great-grandmother born about 1820 in England.” That would make her Woolgar’s fourth-great-grandmother—if the caption is correct. It’s a troublesome photo that’s been bothering him for a couple of years.

And no wonder this picture is driving him crazy: If this woman was born in 1820, her outfit should reflect 1890s styles (estimating she’s at least 70, based on the deep wrinkles around her cheeks). But that’s not the case.

Although her sleeves have a slight fullness at the upper arm, characteristic of the 1890s, that’s not enough evidence.

This photo has a lot more in common with a picture featured in my Photo Detective column in the June 2005 Family Tree Magazine. Taken in 1848, it showed an elderly woman wearing a ruffled cap, a full-upper-sleeved dress and a fur stole. That woman was Judith Simpson, age 74.

It’s clear from the clothing that Woolgar’s portrait is a lot older than he thought. Her ruffled ?day cap? (a cap worn indoors), bold-patterned cotton dress with a shawl collar and full upper sleeves, and woolen shawl all date from the 1830s. These clothing clues, combined with her age, would make it impossible for this woman to have been born in 1820. I believe this photo is a classic example of an elderly person wearing older-style clothing—meaning the fashion clues confusingly don’t match the portrait’s date.

The photo itself is a copy of a daguerreotype, a style of photography popular from the 1840s through about 1860 in many parts of the world, including England. For more examples of daguerreotypes see My Likeness Taken: Daguerrian Portraits in America by Joan L. Severa (Kent State University Press, $65). The oval shape of the original daguerreotype is still visible if you look closely at the upper corners of this image.

Either a “copy photographer” or the original daguerreotypist took this fuzzy photo. I’d vote for the latter. He focused his camera perfectly on the fabric at knee height, blurring the rest of the image. This can happen with autofocus cameras even today, when you aim at an object in the foreground and the background blurs.

If the woman in this photo is 70 to 80 years old and the image dates from about 1843, she was born between 1763 and 1773. That’s a few more generations back than Woolgar’s father thought. With a time frame and an approximate age, now Woolgar can look at his research and try to figure out who she is.

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4. Don’t laminate.–>