Genealogy 101: Deciphering old photos

Genealogy 101 by Margaret Houben - Deciphering old photos

I like old photos, even if they are just black and white… or brown, depending on how and when they were developed.  Of course, there are always some that aren’t marked with who is in them and or when they were taken (I’m guilty of not marking pictures myself, sometimes).

So, if those old photos you found in the attic or the back of your parents’ closet aren’t marked with names, places or dates, don’t despair.  If there are people in the photo, you can often figure out an approximate date by the fashions they are wearing.

Is there a woman in the photo?

She’s the best one to start with, as women (generally) are more fashion conscious and will more likely be wearing the latest fashion of the times, particularly if she is between 16 and 40.  As they got older, both men and women often started dressing more conservatively.

For women’s dress from 1840-1900:

• Between the 1840s and late 1860s,  a fitted bodice with a bell-shaped skirt was very popular.

• Towards the end of the 1860s, the front of the skirt became flatter, while the back slowly grew into a projecting bustle.

• In the 1870s garments were often layered and flounced.  By the mid 1870s the bustle was on the way out.   In its place, an elongated cuirass bodice became fashionable with the drapery falling into a long train behind.

• By 1880, the train was abandoned for day wear and fashion shifted to a narrow and sheath-like look: long, tight-fitting bodices and shoe-length skirts wrapped closely around the legs.

• About 1884 the bustle returned, this time more severe and extreme, often projecting sharply like a shelf behind the waist – this fashion lasted about five to six years.

• By the 1890s, naturally-shaped skirts fitting closely over the hips came into fashion, and the emphasis shifted to the bodice and blouse sleeve.  Puffs appeared at the sleeve head and gradually expanded in the upper arm to form the distinctive ‘leg-o’-mutton’ or gigot sleeve. At its widest in 1895-1896, the puff gradually withdrew back up the arm, resulting in a tight puffball shape or shoulder frill by the end of the decade.

The above gives you an idea of how one can puzzle out the approximate year by what the subjects are wearing.

There are many sites online that have this sort of information along with all sorts of illustrations; see what you can find.  And of course, it is not only the clothes that will give you hints, but hair styles as well.

The Barriere Genealogy Group meets every first and third Friday of the month, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Barriere Library.