Photo Detective: Candid Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

“It’s possible that this picture is of my grandmother’s mother who was orphaned in Indiana and raised by family members in Illinois,” wrote Rita Werner about this charming candid photograph of two women and a young girl.

The fact that it’s out of focus doesn’t detract from the sentimental value of the image.
Rita found it in a photograph album that belonged to her grandparents, both born in 1910. She doesn’t know whether this picture is from her grandmother’s or grandfather’s family. Relatives think the little girl resembles the grandmother’s family, but no one knows for certain.

It is not unusual to find unidentified photographs in family albums. The person who created the album knew who the people were but never found time to write captions for some or all of the pictures.

In this case, it is not known even who created the album, so it difficult to place the picture within a family group. In addition, the blurry view of the women’s clothing further complicates the identification process—but there are still things that can be learned about this particular photograph.

First, the existence of the image in the grandparent’s album suggests that it was important to one of them. Since photo albums are constructed in a particular order, it would be helpful to look at the placement of this photograph and the others near it. Many young women and men compiled autobiographical photo albums and scrapbooks as visual representations of their lives. The photographs surrounding this image can reveal additional clues about who is in the picture and when it was taken.

Rita removed the picture from the album to scan it. On the back she found that it was made as a postcard with a place for a stamp. This was popular from the late 19th century to the 1920s. When individuals visited a photographer, they could choose from a variety of options, including having their images printed as postcards ready for mailing. If the photograph had been sent, a postmark would identify the date it was mailed.

Rita Werner specifically wants to know if the photograph predates World War I. The costume clues narrow the time frame for the photograph and answer her question. The women are wearing simple dresses with small corsages. Both are wearing their hair pulled away from the face with a center part and a bun. The length and style of their dresses as well as their hairstyles date from the period 1900 to 1910.

Now that there is a tentative date for the image, Rita Werner can consult her genealogical data and see if there are any special events that took place in the family between 1900 and 1910. The light-colored clothing and appearance of the trees in the background suggests either spring or summer.

The most striking feature of this photograph is the interaction between the three subjects. The child in the middle is grasping both of the women by the hand and appears to be playing a game. From the action in the picture it looks like she is trying to engage the adults by counting and jumping. The older woman is enjoying the silliness, while the young woman is trying to remain still for the photographer. The candidness of this image evoked happy memories for either Rita Werner’s grandmother or grandfather. It’s a great image of a happy family group that captures a sense of their personalities in one picture. Hopefully the identity of these three women can be uncovered in other family pictures.

Find more of Photo Detective Maureen A. Taylor’s advice on identifying your old family photos in her book Family Photo Detective (Family Tree Books).