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<2017 June>

by Maureen A. Taylor

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# Monday, 26 October 2015
Halloween in Old Photos: Three Clues to Spot
Posted by Maureen

This weekend ghouls, goblins and princesses will ring my doorbell looking for treats. There will also be some movie characters as well such as Darth Vader given the interest in the new film. The choice of costumes at every Halloween reflects what figures are popular at the cinema, on television and in news.  This has been true since the beginning of Halloween celebrations. 

To spot the costume clues in your family photographs remember these three things.

Costumed Affairs

Fancy Dress Ball Costumes, 1880s. Library of Congress

Victorian-era ancestors loved to dress up for private Halloween parties, but it wasn't until the turn of the century that kids dressing up for parties became commonplace. Many towns held parades so that kids and adults could show off their themed attire.

Not all costumed ancestors depict Halloween. There were dress-up parties for New Years and themed parades before Thanksgiving. In Thanksgiving Day Masquerade, I explored the clues in a picture of four children in costume. It's important not to jump to conclusions when you see a child dressed up.  

Handmade Clues
Most of the costumes seen in early 20th century pictures of kids in dress-up were homemade. Paper patterns were available from the Pictorial Patterns Co. You can find a wide range of vintage patterns on a wiki site devoted to sharing older ones. You can see which costumes were popular when, as well as find your favorite childhood design.

Commercially produced costumes weren't available until the 1930s. Browse the Sears Catalogs on to see your grandmother's costume choices.

Both of these sites give you a opportunity to see what themes were popular for dress-up in earlier generations.

Photo Evidence
To pinpoint the exact year of a Halloween picture, look beyond the clothing to two details on the picture.
  • Photographer's name: Use city directories to discover when a photographer was in business. Department stores offered photo services to customers inviting them to pose in the Halloween costumes.

  • Stamp box on a Real Photo Postcard: The stamp box on the back of a postcard identifies the paper manufacturer and the design helps narrow down a time frame.  Use Playle's guide to determine a tentative date.
Watch the background of the picture for clues to where it was taken, such as a backyard, store signage or vehicle.

Researching historical Halloween pictures and traditions in period newspapers on a site such as might give you ideas for this year's celebration.  You could be the first person in your family to hold a vintage bash.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • Halloween
    Monday, 26 October 2015 14:14:10 (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Sunday, 18 October 2015
    Teasing the Clues Out of An Old Photo
    Posted by Maureen

    Larry Calhoun thinks this is a gathering of either the Benfield or the Calhoun family in western North Carolina. Last week, I discussed how Annie Oakley influenced frontier dress for women. This week, let's study the other clues in the same image and see if they help Larry figure out who's who.

    A big group portrait generates a LOT of questions and this image is no different. My eye roams over the family members trying to see patterns. I like to start with simple questions and see if those answers lead up to the big question of why the group posed for the image:

    When was the photo taken?
    The clothing worn by the young women in this picture can help provide a time frame.

    The neck scarves on the young women above suggest a date of the mid- to late 1880s.

    Who's the oldest person?
    In this case it's a woman. Generally the oldest person is someone important like a mother, grandmother or even great-grandmother. Look to see who sits next to that person. It's usually his or her children.

    The oldest woman is seated in the middle of the group. Estimating an age for her can help Larry fit her into either the Calhouns' or the Benfields' genealogy. Let's say she's 75 and this picture was taken in 1885. That suggests a birth date for her of circa 1810. There doesn't appear to be a man about the same age in this photo, so it's possible her husband has died.

    Who's the youngest person?
    See the baby in the front row leaning against a middle-aged woman?   There's also a baby in the arms of the woman in the back. The birth dates of those two children can pinpoint an exact year for this gathering.

    Think about the last time you posed for a family group portrait. Spouses and older children stand near each other, while younger children are allowed to sit in front of all the adults. In this image, study the men and women standing next to each other. There are a few couples in the back row. Matching them up with all those children is going to be a challenge.  But Larry can use his family history research to create a two-column table of names and ages of the Calhoun and Benfield family members about 1885. It will give him a quick overview of the family to compare to the picture.  

    The next step is to compare any other related family photos taken around the same time to this picture. If those aren't available, he can try locating photographs of Benfields and Calhouns in the hands of his cousins. This is a great picture to post on social media to see if anyone else in the family recognizes anyone. I'd also reach out to historical and genealogical societies in the area of North Carolina where these folks lived.  

    The big unknown in this picture is why it was taken. Is it a family reunion or does it document a family gathering for an event like a death or marriage?

    Identifying one or two people in this picture may reveal the answer and lead to a lot of other folks being identified as well.

    Knowing when all of these family members posed for this picture is the first step in the long process of identifying who's who. 

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • 1880s photos | beards | group photos | women
    Sunday, 18 October 2015 17:15:36 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Monday, 12 October 2015
    Annie Oakley and Your Old Photos
    Posted by Maureen

    What does Annie Oakley have to do with your family photos? More than you think.

    Larry Calhoun sent a group portrait he thinks was taken in western North Carolina. It could be members of the Calhoun or Benfield family.  I took one look and said, "Whoa, that woman on the left is showing her ankles."

    Take a good look and you'll see what I mean. Yes, that's a short skirt and boots.

     It's an unexpected link between Annie and this mysterious family group. This young woman may have had an idol and I don't mean the Kardashians. Annie Oakley. She was America's darling and a media superstar long before America's Got Talent.

    A Radical Woman
    In an era when oversize bustles and tight corsets hampered women's movements, Annie stood out as a symbol of a different life. Her short dresses and demurely covered legs as well as her role as a sharpshooter appealed to many women.  By performing in public, she lived a nineteenth century man's life in women's clothing. She was considered talented and feminine.  For the most part, frontier women in the backwoods, mid-west and western United States labored in heavy skirts, but Annie had freedom to run on stage and exhibit her shooting skills.

    Born in 1860 to a Quaker family, she lost her father as a child. Her mother lacked financial resources so Annie was sent to be a servant with another family. One that turned out to be abusive. At 15, her shooting skills brought her fame.

    An Arresting Appearance

    Annie made her own clothes. Instead of long skirts, she designed shorter styles and often wore them with tights to cover her legs.  It reflected lady-like modesty. She managed to be revolutionary without calling attention to that fact.

    Calf length skirts could brand a woman as a rebel. Reformers seeking the vote like Amelia Bloomer adopted full pantaloons named for her. Health advocates sought to improve women's health through dress reforms to allow exercise. Shorter skirts worn with a type of pant gave women like Civil War doctor Mary Walker the ability to do their job unencumbered by yards of fabric. The same was true for mill workers who didn't want to risk death getting their skirts caught in the machinery. Yet this type of attire was radical and dangerous. A woman could be arrested for dressing "male."

    Frontier Women in Your Family
    Instead Annie earned the admiration of both men and women who called her "Little Sure Shot." Her exploits appeared in newspapers and her appearance likely encouraged young women to don her clothing style. She advocated that women should learn to shoot. She taught more than fifteen thousand to do so. There is no doubt that the diminutive five foot tall Annie (and other female frontier heroes) inspired women to pose for photographs holding guns and to participate in shooting matches. She lived until 1926, an era where most women wore skirts above the ankles.

    Calhoun's "Annie"
    The next time you see an old photo of a  woman standing with a rifle, think of Annie. This young woman doesn't have a rifle, but she's wearing and Annie styled skirt. There is no clue in this picture that this woman could shoot. It's clear that she's not a child. While young girls could wear calf-length skirts, once they were older teens a floor length skirt was required for modesty.

    We can't know for sure if Annie inspired this young woman's attire, but it's unlikely that she never heard of her. Annie traveled the country with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

    If you want to search for more photos of frontier women check out the digital collection in the Western History Collection of the Denver Public Library.

    I'll be back next week to tell you about the clues that date this picture and how Larry can begin to find out who's who.  In the meantime, sort through your family pictures and see if  you have a young "Annie" look-alike in your photo albums. You can send them to me by using the "How to Submit Your Photo" link.

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • unusual clothing | women | Annie Oakley
    Monday, 12 October 2015 22:14:22 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
    # Sunday, 04 October 2015
    Mourners in Old Graveside Photo
    Posted by Diane

    This old graveside picture is proof that family photographs are inherited differently in every family. Sometimes the pictures go to the oldest, sometimes the youngest, and sometimes they get scattered among descendants.

    The same can be true for genealogical information. Huge online genealogy databases like and can help bring all that data and those pictures back together.

    Pam Fisher got this photo from her cousin Mary Fehr. Pam's theory that it depicts the funeral of her great aunt Edna, who died in 1890, didn't agree with the circa 1919 date for the picture. In last week's post, I studied the evidence and theorized that the graveside mourners are close family members and that the deceased could be a child.

    Pam also submitted an image of her great-uncle Benjamin F. Shepardson (born 1863). She thinks he's standing in the group of mourners near the grave. I agree. Matching photographs of individuals involves looking at all the facial features and the spacing between those features. It's also about adding up the facts of their life and making sure the picture details match those facts.

    In this case, they do. Benjamin lived in the vicinity of the funeral. Here's a picture of Benjamin taken in the 1880s and a close-up of him at the funeral. This single portrait together with an image I found online (owned by a distant cousin) helped break the case.


    A quick search of turned up multiple family trees for descendants of the Shepardson family. Several siblings were still living in the circa 1919 period: Arthur (b.1860), Benjamin (b. 1863), Oliff (b. 1867), Pliny (b. 1873), Bessie (b. 1875), Otis (b. 1880) and Victor (b. 1884). Edna (1869-1890) and David (1877-1893) were deceased.

    Benjamin was a favorite uncle amongst the descendants of his siblings—so special that his memorial on Find A includes a testament to him as "Beloved Uncle Ben." He lived in Castle Rock, Cowlitz, Wash.

    I wondered if there were more Shepardsons buried in the Whittle Hubbard cemetery there. Turns out the answer is yes. There's is a family plot there as well. A photo of the cemetery appears on the site. All those evergreen trees and the rolling landscape looked familiar. Bingo! The graveside picture appears to have been taken at Whittle Hubbard.

    Suddenly there was another possibility for who's being mourned: Bejamin's mother Flora died in 1915.

    All the information about the family online might hold a clue to who's standing graveside. Now take a look at the man on the far right: He also resembles Benjamin. 

    This could be Benjamin's older brother, Arthur. Looking at public family trees for the Shepardsons on turned up another picture, this one of their sister Bessie. She could be the woman in the front of the group of mourners or the woman in back standing next to Benjamin.

    Below, I've added suggested identification to the people in the picture. This is a long way from saying exactly who's who. More information is need on where these people lived to gauge whether or not they could have attended the funeral.

    I'm playing devil's advocate with the rest of the identities, estimating how old people might be in 1915. Arthur (55), Benjamin (52), Bessie (40), David (38), Otis (35) and Victor (31). Two of the brothers are missing: Oliff and Pliny, who would've been 48 and 42 in 1915. Now it's time to try to find images of all the siblings and match them up to the folks near the grave. I'm confident that additional research can solve this mystery. 

    It appears that images of the siblings are scattered in collections owned by distant cousins. Pam's going to have fun trying to track down those images. In the process she'll be bringing the descendants of these mourners back together.

    Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now

  • 1910s photos | mourning photos
    Sunday, 04 October 2015 12:25:03 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]