Photo Detective: Religious Occasions

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

In this touching portrait of two brothers, a toddler is gently holding his brother’s hand and looking tentatively at the camera. The owner of the photograph, Sherri Hulse, tried to identify the image by showing it to older relatives but they are unable to recall the circumstances relating to the picture. However, everyone she shows it to asks the same question: “Why is the older boy wearing a white armband?”

When children made their first communion or confirmation in the Catholic Church, they generally wore special clothing. For these events, young girls wore white dresses and veils while boys wore suits with a white armband. As shown in this image, some boys also wore small sprigs of flowers in their lapels. The armband indicates the religious affiliation of the boys, which helps identify the boys as the Gappa children rather than another branch of Sherri Hulse’s family tree.

The Gappa family had five boys born in the following years: 1895, 1906, 1909, 1911 and 1914. The costume clues suggest it was taken from 1910 to 1920, most likely in the World War I years (1914-1918). The younger boy’s outfit provides the date. He is wearing a romper suit popular in that decade, complete with leggings and a military-looking beret. The beret has a small pin that appears to be a ship’s wheel with spokes and a piece of ribbon. This completes his sailor suit. The older boy’s clothing isn’t distinctive; it has the typical three-button jacket.

Let’s see if a more-specific date can be determined by using the war years as a starting point. If the younger child is around 4 years old then he could be the brother born in either 1909 or 1911. The older boy is probably around 10 years of age, which establishes a six year gap between the two.

Since the owner believes that one of the boys is her paternal grandfather born in 1906, it is probable that the two boys in the picture are her grandfather, Vincent Gregory Gappa, and his brother, Lawrence Sylvester Gappa, born in 1911. If the portrait dates from 1915 her grandfather would have been 9 years old and his brother 4. This seems to work, but specifically identifying the brothers is difficult given their close birth years.

The presence of the armband combined with known family history helps pinpoint a possible date for this picture to 1915. One of the only ways to determine accuracy of this date would be to locate church records for the event. This is a good example of how genealogy and photo identification based on costume can determine a date for a photograph.

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