Photo Detective: Star Signs

Photo Detective: Star Signs

Dating this photograph didn't require examining clothing details or finding out when the photographer was in business. The evidence was so obvious that it was easy to overlook. Sometimes the smallest details immediately date a photograph—in this case, the details are the flags. By simply counting the number of...

Dating this photograph didn’t require examining clothing details or finding out when the photographer was in business. The evidence was so obvious that it was easy to overlook. Sometimes the smallest details immediately date a photograph—in this case, the details are the flags. By simply counting the number of stars, I discovered the picture was taken within a four-year time frame—July 4, 1908, to January 6, 1912.

You can read Old Glory’s history and view images of the 27 flags used since the Stars and Stripes became official June 14, 1777, at www.usflag.org. Several versions of the American flag have flown since the advent of photography in 1839—so if you see one in a picture, count the stars and add up the rest of the clues to see if the date fits.

Valerie Moran thinks the people in this picture are family, but she’s not sure who they are. Once you have a time frame for a picture, see if the rest of the clues fill in other details. For instance, everyone in this photograph wears summer attire—most of the women have on lightweight, white summer dresses or shirts, while the men pose without jackets. The women’s attire—pouched-front blouses, wide belts and long, straight skirts—fits the time period for the flags, as does the Gibson Girl hairstyle, pulled into a bun on top of the women’s heads. Just the combination of the women’s clothing and the date of the flag is enough to date this picture between 1908 and 1912.

But when identifying a photograph, I usually try to narrow the time frame even further. In this case, the history of the flag might date the picture to a day. Oklahoma joined the Union on Nov. 16, 1907, but the new flag didn’t debut until July 4, 1908. The summer attire and new flag suggest that these people were celebrating a patriotic holiday, maybe the introduction of the new flag.

It’s up to Moran to take the research a step further. Using her genealogical data, she needs to determine who was living on July 4, 1908. Of course, the group might have flown the flags anytime in that four-year time frame, so she shouldn’t rule out any family members living between 1908 and 1912. By checking her family tree, comparing life dates and looking at other photographs in her collection, she might be able to identify the people in this picture.

See how another flag helped date a photograph in “Patriotic Clues”.

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