Photo Detective: Why the Long Face?

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Someone, somewhere, sometime wrote the caption on this photo, Sam Long’s Family. It should be simple to identify the people pictured—but not for Marianne West. She has several relatives named Sam Long. Let’s find out which Sam is right for this picture.

This caption isn’t as straightforward as it appears. Sam Long’s Family indicates these people are related to him, not necessarily that he’s in the picture. Maybe it was taken after he died, and someone who knew him and his family added the label. It could refer to his relatives, or more specifically, to his children and grandchildren.

No family stories tell West the occasion for this photo, although it obviously depicts a family gathering. She hopes the caption refers to Samuel H. Long (1835 to 1895), father of two daughters and three sons who reached adulthood, all born between 1869 and 1879. Is she right? If you have a photo problem that resembles hers, start by learning as much as you can about your same-named ancestors, including:

  • Life dates. West knows one Sam lived between 1835 and 1895, another was born in 1806 (she doesn’t know the death date), and the third one died in 1905.
  • Place of residence. A photographer’s name and address would tell you where and when the picture was taken. The lack of that information on this picture doesn’t help, but a relative who owns the original told West it was taken in Pennsylvania. At least two of the Sam Longs lived in Pennsylvania for part of their lives.
  • Number of children. You’ll need an extended family tree to track all the children and grandchildren, but the data could help name the people in a group shot.

Armed with the above knowledge, it’s time to figure out the rest. The only clue other than the caption is what everyone’s wearing. Most of the women have hairstyles with curly bang. Several different hats appear: wide-brimmed ones, straw hats with trim, and on the woman in the center, a formal model with a feather on the crown. The dress worn by the woman on the far left features several rows of trim at the hem, and all dresses have snug bodices. The hairstyles, hats and dresses date the picture to the mid-1880s. Sam H. Long’s oldest child would be a teenager at that time. Some individuals in this picture do fit that age range, but would they be Sam’s children or grandchildren? They could be relatives of the Sam born in 1806 or the one who died in 1905.

I’d go back to the caption. What type of ink and writing implement was used to write it? Ballpoint pens are a mid-20th century invention, making it likely someone who knew the Sam who died in 1905 wrote the label. All that’s necessary to solve this picture identification is a little more research on the three Sam’s. The rest will fall into place. <!–

Watch for props. –><!–