Photo Detective: Snooping for Pictures

Photo Detective: Snooping for Pictures

When you visit your relatives, do you pay attention to the photographs they have on display? If you don't, you could miss a vital genealogical clue. Recently, when visiting a distant cousin, I asked if she owned any photographs. She said no and led me to a seat in...

When you visit your relatives, do you pay attention to the photographs they have on display? If you don’t, you could miss a vital genealogical clue. Recently, when visiting a distant cousin, I asked if she owned any photographs. She said no and led me to a seat in her living room directly in front of an oversized wedding portrait of her parents. It was so much a part of her life that she forgot to mention it!

Similarly, this week’s photograph was on display for two generations. It once occupied a special place on Bridget Elisabeth Klinkhammer’s dresser and her mother’s before that. Bridget’s grandson, now in his 80s, remembers seeing it there. The family would like to know when the photograph was taken to determine who is in the picture. Because it sat in a private part of the house—a bedroom—and was looked at daily, it is definitely someone held dear. The family imagines it’s a picture of either Bridget “Lizzie” Klinkhammer (1881-1954) or her mother Bridget “Brigid” Dorsey Klinkhammer (1848-1926). Brigid’s grandson sent a copy to a relative living in Norway, and she submitted it in hopes of unraveling the mystery. Since this is a copy of an original image, it has no photographer’s imprint and even the size of the photograph is unknown.

Clothing details suggest a date for this photograph. This woman’s dress is probably made from wool and, in the style of the 1880s, features a small bustle at the back, barely visible in the drape of fabric. Her accessories provide more specific clues.

Two simple accessories present in this image support a narrow time frame for the image: the fan and her hair comb. Both were featured as fashionable accessories in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1887. Women carried fans throughout the 1880s for special occasions and visiting. Publications even advised women how to use their fans for nonverbal communication. This woman is holding a simple everyday fan rather than a more elaborate one made from ostrich feathers for evening dress. Her hair accessory is practical and decorative. She used it to hold her hair in place while drawing attention to her face.

Harper’s Bazaar magazine was a source for American women’s fashion between 1867 and 1898. Stella Blum edited 1,000 of the illustrations featured in the publication in Victorian Fashions & Costumes From Harper’s Bazaar 1867-1898 (Dover, 1974). Blum’s book illustrates how women dressed for three decades of the 19th century from accessories to undergarments.

The date of this photograph—the late 1880s—suggests that the woman is Bridget Dorsey. Dorsey married Peter Klinkhammer Sept. 30, 1873, in Ontario. An interesting side note is that the bond between the two families was strengthened when Peter’s brothers married two other Dorsey sisters, Sarah and Margaret.

The next time you go to a relative’s house for a visit, ask for a tour and be on the lookout for family photographs. I’m sure you’ll see some. Be a nosy relative and ask about family pictures. They just might solve one of your long-standing genealogical problems.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.

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