October 18, 2011

Identifying a Mystery Photo

This photo from my father-in-law’s collection is unidentified. He thinks it resembles his grandmother, Mary Asenath Sanborn Crites (1869-1958), but can’t be sure. I wish he had a picture of Mary as a young woman or bride to compare it to, but he doesn’t. The only other photo I have of her is in old age, after she suffered a stroke. So I’m attempting to analyze some clues from the picture. I thought walking through the process here might help others trying to do the same, and maybe even generate additional tips from readers.

To start the identification process, I scanned both the front and back of the photo. The back identifies the photographer as N. W. Smith, Loudonville, Ohio. His decorative imprint advertised, “Old Pictures Copied & Enlarged.”

Mary was born in Loudonville in 1869, so the place is a good match. What about the time period? If I had to guess, I’d say the girl in the picture looks to be between 11-16 years old. If it’s Mary, that means the photo would have been taken roughly 1880-1886. To help me figure this out, I turned to three books in my collection: Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, by Maureen A. Taylor, and the Family Chronicle publications Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929 and More Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929.

From Taylor’s book, I identified the type of photograph as a carte de visite, a cardboard-mounted print, usually 2½” x 4¼”, introduced in the U. S. in 1859 and quite popular for at least the next three decades. So far, so good.

Next I turned to clues within the picture itself. There’s no backdrop, but I can look at her hair and clothing. This girl has a center part and short, puffy bangs, with the rest of her hair pulled back in a single braid. I didn’t find very many examples of girls with bangs in the books, but there were some in the 1880’s. I even found one girl with puffy bangs posed in much the same way (front on, looking off to the side), dated 1880.

Regarding clothing, those lace collars seemed quite popular on girls’ dresses in the 1880’s and early 1890’s. There isn’t enough of the dress showing to see what the waist looks like, but the shoulders aren’t puffed or ruffled. Straight, tight sleeves were common in the 1880’s, it seems, but in the early 1890’s you start to see a “kick-up” on the shoulder, according to Taylor. So this dress probably predates 1890. 

And that’s about as far as I’ve gotten so far. Are the clues in the picture consistent with identification as a young Mary A. Sanborn? Yes, pretty much. Are they enough? Unfortunately, no. What can I do to help the process? Here’s my plan:

1. Research the photographer. Diane VanSkiver Gagel wrote a book, Ohio Photographers: 1839-1900, which I want to look at. Is N. W. Smith listed in there? If so, when did he have his studio in Loudonville? Have any of his records survived? Fortunately, Columbus Metropolitan Library has the book in its collection. Loudonville wasn't large enough to warrant a city directory, but that would be another way to find information on a photographer in a bigger city. 

2. Study the hairstyle. Numerous books contain illustrations and information on hairstyles and fashions of various time periods. One I want to look at is Maureen Taylor’s book Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900. I'm hoping it may shed some more light on those bangs and single braid.

3. Look in my database. If not Mary, who could this girl be? Who else in the family tree fits into that place and time frame?

4. Try to locate more photographs. My father-in-law believes his sister may have more family photos, but he hasn't been successful in getting her to find or share them with him. Perhaps he and I could visit her together next summer. She might be willing to let me scan some photos that she's reluctant to part with. It seems highly likely that other photos of Mary Sanborn, either before or after her marriage to George F. Crites, exist somewhere. It's just a matter of finding them. 

I hope to get a little closer to an answer by following those steps. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who has more experience with this sort of thing. Any suggestions for what else I might do?

Disclaimer: I purchased the publications I used for this little study, which are, in no particular order:
Maureen A. Taylor, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, 2nd Edition (Cincinnati, Ohio: Family Tree Books, 2005).
Halvor Moorshead, editor, Dating Old Photographs, 2nd edition (Moorshead Magazines, 2004).
Edward Zapletal, editor, More Dating Old Photographs, 3rd edition (Moorshead Magazines, 2011).

(Written in response to 31 Weeks to a Better Genealogy Blog: Solve a Problem, an ongoing series by Tonia Kendrick at Tonia's Roots.)


  1. Great post!! I need to do this with more of my photos.

  2. Thanks, Jennifer. I have quite a few others I need to identify, too :)

  3. Great post! I already have both of Taylor's books you mentioned. Do the other two books you mentioned provide much added benefit?

  4. Thanks, MN. The Dating Old Photographs books are light on text but full of examples of real photographs that have been accurately dated. While you don't necessarily need both, I'd say one or the other would make a helpful addition to your library. And I believe they're relatively inexpensive.

  5. I enjoyed your post, and I was wondering if your Sanborn ancestors came from New Hampshire?

  6. Yes, Heather, they did. Annah's father, Joseph Haven Sanborn, son of Jeremiah Sanborn, was born in Concord, New Hampshire in 1831. Her mother's family (Smith/Ives) came from New Hampton, N.H.

    This is actually my husband's family, and I still have a lot more research to do on them. Do you have a connection to the Sanborns?

  7. Sorry, the above should read Mary's father, not Annah's father... :)


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