Putting names to faces and places

Family Searcher    Many of my older photographs are unidentified. I know one woman whose mother left detailed notes about every photo in her albums, and a very few others who have MOST of their photos identified. But the odds are, most of us need help identifying “when”, “where” and “who”. I have assembled a few clues to help, mostly with nineteenth century (1800’s) photos; before the world became so mobile, and photography became easier and, therefore, more common. The good news is that there are many great books, magazines and online clues and tips. You may not be able to prove who is in those photos, but with perseverance you will probably be able to come close for many of them.

    Many photo detective books (etc.) will suggest that you begin by studying the photo itself to determine how it was processed, for example is it a daguerreotype, tintype, cabinet card, etc? If you have the original photo, look for resources about “photo processing“. However, most of us are dealing with a copy, so may have to skip this step. Some general photography facts: the earliest known North American photograph is from 1839. Flash photography was not developed until the 1880’s. Early photos took MINUTES to expose, so people had to sit completely still for that time, which is why so many ancestral photos look grim-faced. (Nana may be hidden under a blanket to hold a child still.)
    The more you know about your family history, the easier it will be to narrow down the possibilities: you probably know which side of the family it came from, so that’s a start. Get the best quality photo you can, so that you can enlarge it or look at it through a magnifying glass. There are clues in clothing, hairstyles and jewelry. Women’s styles changed frequently, but changes in men’s clothing are usually more subtle, such as collar and neckwear styles. Do not forget that clues may be contained in background details. For example you may recognize the rocking chair purchased when your mother was born, or a copy of a Monet (since impressionism didn’t achieve popularity until the 1870’s copies probably didn’t appear in America until much later). Flower arrangements may give a clue to the time of year, to help eliminate, for example, a baby born in January or February. City directories or historical societies may indicate what years a photography studio was in business.
    Once you have assembled your clues, that the hairstyle was popular in the 1870’s; dress style 1873 – 5, etc, then consider all the women you thought might be in the photo, and you may be able to narrow it down to one or two women of the right age, and knowing someone else in the photo may be the final clue needed to determine who it’s likely to be. I had a photo of a white-haired woman that I desperately hoped would be great-great-grandmother Bridget Gallagher, but the hairstyle wasn’t popular until about 1916, 15 years after her death, the only other candidate by age, was my great grandmother, Kittie Gallagher. You may not like the answer, but knowing is always better.
    Nina G. Brawn has lived in the Dover-Foxcroft area for over 50 years and currently lives there with her husband Fred. Nina was the last of 10 children, has three children of her own and nine grandchildren. She can be reached online at ninagbrawn@gmail.com.

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