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OPINION
August 6, 2020

6/3/2020 2:07:00 PM
How to be a photo detective
This portrait of an unidentified woman was taken at the Cadwallader Photographic Studio in North Vernon, around 1875 to 1880. Purchased on eBay, it is part of McLaughlin’s extensive photo collection.
+ click to enlarge
This portrait of an unidentified woman was taken at the Cadwallader Photographic Studio in North Vernon, around 1875 to 1880. Purchased on eBay, it is part of McLaughlin’s extensive photo collection.
OK, I'll admit it. I have an addiction that, while not a danger to me physically or emotionally, does a somewhat negative impact on my finances and, in terms of finding storage space, my home.

My husband might argue the impact is negative, but in my opinion the jury is still out.

My addiction is collecting vintage photographs. Cabinet cards, glass negatives, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, Polaroids, photos from the 1950s and '60s - you name it: I have one. Or 10. Or, in some cases a few hundred. My only salvation is that I'm not exactly a hoarder. Yet.

But since I was a kid, I have been fascinated with photography, maybe more than genealogy; but this affliction actually allows me to combine the two.

When I browse old photos in antiques shops or online at eBay, I always look on the back first to see if there are any names or other identifying information. Taking that information to Ancestry.com or other online resources has enabled me to reunite such artifacts with living relatives of the long-dead family members in the portraits. And that, my friends, gives me one of the best "highs" I've felt.

Have you ever come across old family photos in your parents' or grandparents' house and dismayed to find there are no names to identify those posing?

If your parents or grandparents are no longer living, it might seem
impossible to even hope you might determine the names that go with
the faces, right?

Well, as my friends who writes the blog, "The Legal Genealogist," often will say - it depends.

There are certain things to keep in mind when you do come across these while going through old boxes and such.

Context is crucial
First, determine the context of how you found these items? Who was the person last in possession of the photo or photos you have found?

Did they care about family history? Were they included in a collection with other photos, some of which might be identified on the back (or the front)? Do any of the photos include people you recognize?

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, then you may be able to solve the mystery on your own.

First, look at your family tree, if you have built one. If you found the photos at your maternal grandmother's house, for example, study the relationships between her own family and the family of your grandfather. Look at when and where they were born, whey the may have married, children they may have had, etc., and take note. Knowing when, and in some cases where, the photo was taken will help determine who is most likely the subject of the photo.

Next, study the photo you hope to identify. There are dozens of potential clues right there in your hand. Then, learn a little history about the art of photography.

A brief history of photography
Commercial photography became available in the United States in 1839, just a year or so after Louis Daguerre (inventor of the daguerreotype) made studio photography popular in France. From that point, photography went through many incarnations, including a similar photography method called the ambrotype, then moving on to paper prints mounted on cardstock of various shapes, sizes and colors.

Eventually in the late 1800s, Kodak and other companies came along and invented box cameras - like Kodak's Brownie line - that allowed anyone to buy a camera loaded with film, take their own photographs and send the film in to be developed and printed.

By the 1940s, color film was a common commodity, followed by the invention of the 35mm film cameras, the "instamatic" cameras ("Shake it like a Polaroid picture!"), slide film, and the digital cameras we have today that don't use film at all.

A daguerreotype, which is a positive image developed on glass, can be identified by several elements. They are typically housed in small, tightly constructed cases made of wood or a plastic-like material called gutta-percha. The case usually is hinged so it can be closed using a hook-and-eye mechanism, and the photo is framed by a brass mat that keeps the glass securely in place. These were most popular in the U.S. from 1839 through the mid- to late 1850s. They ranged in size from 1/16th plates to 1/8th, 1/4th and full plates.

Similar in appearance, but using a different processing method, is the ambrotype, patented in 1854. These have negative images developed on glass, which require dark background to turn the image to a positive, and were popular through the 1860s. Many have a dark lacquer painted on the reverse side of the image, and some actually used dark rose-colored glass.

Tintypes were popular from about 1856 through the 1930s, and often are made by photographers in tourist locations, such as Gatlinburg. Those range in sizes similar to the previous types, and sometimes were housed in paper envelopes as well as cases.

Paper images mounted on cardboard backings are those most commonly found in antiques stores, and these sometimes can provide a lot of clues to determine the date, and possibly help identify who is in the portrait.

The secret is in the size and type of cardstock used. The carte d'visite, for example, was rectangular and similar in size to a business card - roughly 2 inches wide by 3.5 inches high. These were most popular from the late 1850s and 1860s.

Other tell-tale clues
Often, on the back of carte d'visites there will be a tax stamp on the reverse side that is either green, orange, blue, bright red and dark range, depending on the amount of tax paid, which ranged from 1 cent to 5 cents.

Implemented by the federal government to help fund Union efforts during the Civil War, the tax was in place from Aug.1, 1864 to Aug. 1, 1866, when the tax was repealed.

From the late 1860s through about 1900, the cabinet card gained popularity. Measuring 4.25 inches wide by 6.5 inches high, the key to dating these may like in the color of the cardstock. For example, in this photo, the cardstock actually is a dark green, which was popular from about 1873 to 1880. This photo also includes the photographer's name, Cadwallader, and location of his studio, North Vernon. By researching city directories, it is possible to pinpoint the exact years that a studio was in business.

Pay close attention to clothing styles - how dresses or suits were made, the style of hats worn by both men and women, and props used by the studio - and hairstyles for both men and women, and facial hair trends for men. There is a lot of good information online to help guide you.

Another great source is "The Photo Detective," a book by Maureen Taylor, who also writes a blog of that name and has been featured in numerous webinars on the topic.

I do not know the identity of the woman in this photo, but she likely was from a Jennings County family with some money, based on her dress and the hat sitting on the table next to her, which, along with her hairstyle, does imply the photo was made during the 1870s.

I'm kind of hoping someone might recognize her. If you do, feel free to contact me at twistedrootsgenealog@gmail.com.





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