Identifying Everyday Clues in Photographs, Part I

Dating PhotographsHow many of us have received boxes or albums of photographs from relatives, only to be dismayed to find them unlabeled and undated? This is a concept familiar to many genealogists. Even if our ancestors did not properly annotate their treasured photographs, clues can still be found to help date them. Trends in clothing and hairstyles can be used to narrow down time frames. The type of photography used and the imprints of long gone photographers on cardboard frames offer further evidence of when and where a photograph was taken. Knowing an ancestor’s lifespan and their family’s unique dynamics helps to fill additional puzzle pieces.

This is the first in a series of posts on using clothing and hairstyles to identify and date photographs. My first career was in the field of costume design and history. I studied many fashion trends during my years as a costumer. I still love anything related to textiles – from vintage clothes to sewing reproduction garments. In many ways, studying the history of clothing helps me to visualize  my ancestors with greater depth and clarity. My aim with this series is to help the average genealogist recognize fashion trends in their own photographs and to provide resources for further study.

Today, let’s start with a typical photograph that anyone might have in their collection. In this case, the photograph is of my 2X great grandmother, Elizabeth (Schwartz) Yegerlehner, and one of her granddaughters. I have had this particular photograph in my collection for many years. When I received it from my uncle Mark (yes, that Mark from the letters!), he was in the process of photographing some of the family’s older photographs. He was generous in giving copies to all the relatives who wanted them. This was prior to scanning and high quality color photocopies. Over the years I was led to believe that the younger woman was Grace Wolfe, one of Elizabeth’s grandchildren. I have heard in the intervening years the woman might have been one of Grace’s older sisters.  This definitely put a spin on my original dating of the photograph! But it did clear up some of the inconsistencies that I could not rectify.

Grace Wolf & Elizabeth (Schwartz) Yegerlehner

The first step is to Identify and Describe the people in the picture:

During this step, write down everything you observe in the photograph. Even the smallest of details could be important. The background of this photograph does not provide any identification, such as buildings, cars, farm animals, etc. In this case, however, I am fairly certain that the photograph was taken on the Yegerlehner farm, or one of the farms owned by extended family members. However, this information is not relevant to dating the photograph at present. If the photograph had an identifiable background, listing the visible features would be another step in the  process.

Older Woman –

  • Elizabeth (Schwartz) Yegerlehner (I know this because I have seen other pictures of her so I am familiar with her appearance).
  • Lived 1843-1922
  • Wearing dark clothes, possibly black
  • Elizabeth was widowed in 1903
  • Her bodice has a yoke, with lace or other adornment
  • Sleeves caps are small
  • Sleeves are narrow, but not tight fitting, with cuffs at wrists
  • Bodice does not appear to close in front
  • Long skirt which ends 2-3 off the ground
  • Skirt is plain, with no adornment
  • Long narrow pin at base of neck
  • Bodice has a low or non-existent collar
  • Although her hands cover waist, there is possibly a belt which hits right under her bosom
  • Hair is pulled tight in a bun, with center part

Younger Woman –

  • Most likely one of the Wolfe girls (Emma, b. 1883; Mary, b. 1885; Bertha, b. 1886; Minnie, b. 1888; Pearl, b. 1895; and Grace, b. 1897)
  • Wears long skirt, a couple inches of the ground, striped material, possibly cotton
  • Bodice of same material as the skirt
  • Bodice has ¾ length sleeves, with cuffs below elbows
  • Sleeve caps are slightly puffy, as gathers are evident
  • Sleeves are narrower, but not tight fitting, for “ease of movement”
  • Bodice blouses out at waistline
  • No collar
  • Bodice does not close in front
  • No jewelry
  • No adornment on bodice or skirt
  • Skirt is smoother across hips, and wider at bottom
  • Age between 16-25, old enough to wear long skirts
  • Hair in bun at back, although there is fullness over the ears which mostly covers them; hair appears to be parted in the center but only at the front
  • Working clothes vs. high fashion “good occasion” clothes
  • Clothes likely homemade and not purchased from a catalogue

In the next installment, we will look at fashion trends at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.

©2015 copyright by Deborah Sweeney
Post originally found: https://genealogylady.net/2015/05/02/identifying-everyday-clues-in-photographs-part-i/

3 thoughts on “Identifying Everyday Clues in Photographs, Part I

  1. Cathy Meder-Dempsey

    Since I started my series “Old Photographs Saved From Trash Can” I’ve been scrambling around trying to find articles on dating and clues in the photographs. Most of the collection has been identified by family members but there are still some unknowns I need help with.
    I love all of the fashion details you found in this single photograph. Can’t wait to read the next installment Deborah!

    Reply

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