Photo Detective: Tintype Mystery

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

“I don’t think the attached photo is particularly lovely, because it wasn’t in very good shape when I got it,” Nancy Ratay wrote to me. “However, all family photos are special.” She is absolutely right. It is not the quality of the picture that makes it valuable to genealogists but the information it contains. Nancy knows that this image is a tintype from a family collection because it belonged to her maternal grandmother, Daisy Hindle (Spear) Moffit. It is from her grandmother’s family, either the Hindles or the Spears. According to Nancy, that branch of the family was “very interested in family history and her grandmother had photographs of her parents and grandparents.” She suspects that this tintype is a portrait of either Elizabeth Hindle (1800-1882), her maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother born in England whose husband died in 1845, or Hannah (Winters) Post (1804-1895), her paternal great-grandmother whose husband died in 1850.

Nancy’s mother had her grandmother label all of the paper images so that someone would know who was in the pictures. Any tintypes did not receive labels. Nancy then used the information written on the back of the pictures to locate and research her family. This one tintype is a puzzle. Since she has names to go with the other images, having an unidentified portrait is particularly frustrating. Nancy has already tried matching facial characteristics and this woman doesn’t resemble anyone else.

Establishing a date for the photo based on clothing may help Nancy determine who is in the picture. The dark quality of a tintype due to the protective varnish makes it difficult to see the details.

The key to dating a woman’s dress is the shape of her sleeves, bodice and collar. The sleeves in this dress are narrow and the bodice fitted. She wears a simple belt around her waist. These elements suggest the portrait was taken in the late 1860s.

Sometimes accessories help pinpoint a more specific date. In this case, her only accessories are pins: one at the neckline and one on her bodice (probably for a watch). By examining the tintype with a magnifying glass, you can see a white shirt and a dark head of hair visible in the pin worn at the neck. Photographic jewelry was available in a variety of shapes and styles throughout the 1860s and later. It is unfortunate that this jewelry is no longer in the family because it might provide identification clues. Usually wearers inserted a lock of hair behind the images worn in pins or lockets. There is nothing unusual about her selection of accessories that narrows the time frame.

Unfortunately, the chair used by the photographer for his subjects doesn’t assist in dating the image either. It is a balloon-back rococo side chair from the 1860s. I was unable to find a specific date for the chair.

Let’s add up the clues:

  • Tintypes were popular from the 1850s through the early 20th century. This doesn’t help determine a date for portrait.
  • The woman does not resemble any of the other portraits in the owner’s collection.
  • Her clothing is from the late 1860s.
  • Her accessories are not unusual for the time period.
  • The photographer’s chair is also from the 1860s.

While all the evidence points to the photograph being taken in the late 1860s, that is not enough information to determine who is in the picture. It could be either Elizabeth Hindle or Hannah Post. Both were still alive in the late 1860s and would be about the right age to match the woman in the photograph. Nancy Ratay’s best chance of identifying the image is to contact other relatives to see if there are any photographs in their collection that look like this woman. She could also seek out “missing cousins” using online message boards for both the marriage and maiden names of the women.

It is not always possible to identify an image. In these instances it is necessary to show the picture to as many people as possible. You never who is going to have the information you seek. All you can do is keep trying.

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