I need helping identifying the era of this photograph.
March 13, 2013 11:24 AM   Subscribe

I was given some photographs of old relatives that were found in a box in my great-grandfather's house after he passed away. All but one photo is someone I can identify. I have no information on that one photo, which is of an old woman standing on a path in front of a farmhouse. I'd like to at least get an idea of the era so I can begin narrowing down the identify of the woman.

Here is a scan of the photograph.

The copy I was given appears to be a printed version of a scan. I don't know anything about the physical condition of the original photograph.

Since it came from my maternal grandmother's parents, I can at least narrow down the potential lines of ancestry to two. The photograph was probably taken in either southern Virginia (specifically the Brunswick County/Lunenburg County area) or in Surry County, North Carolina.

My grandmother believes it was her great-grandmother. So her great-grandmothers' information:

1. Lived 1839 - 1931; She was born in Indiana but was living in North Carolina by 1880;
2. Lived 1854 - 1930; She spent her whole life in the area of Brunswick/Lunenburg/Nottoway counties in Virginia.
3. We're not totally positive here. The best candidate I have is a woman born in either 1863 or 1866. No idea when she may have died, but she lived in Lynchburg/Campbell County, Virginia.
4. We know nothing about the fourth, but she probably lived in the Surry County region.

Anything you may be able to offer her would be great based on the clothes or style of photograph. There isn't much else to go on from the photo, unfortunately.

I've got my grandmother's educated guess, the ancestry I know, and some guesses. Otherwise, I've got nothing.
posted by lbo to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Do you know the addresses your great-grandmother lived at in those places? You might be able to pin down the date the farmhouse was built and take it from there.
posted by vickyverky at 11:37 AM on March 13, 2013

What ethnic background is your family? Do they have a common religion? I was just wondering about that unusual hat she is wearing. Maybe a fashion person could answer. But it looks like a hat that may be commonly worn by all the women that are in a certain religious or ethnic group. Knowing that might help.
posted by cda at 11:45 AM on March 13, 2013

As far as dates - it is not a professional photo - it is a "snapshot" - so we know it must be after people had there own Kodak cameras. I would say that the actual photograph looks like about 1920 or 1925 from what I know about cameras.
posted by cda at 11:49 AM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't know much about the history of cameras, but it looks to me like an informal snapshot, one possibly taken by a family member. Does it share any qualities with any of the other photos you have? It's obviously not a posed portrait by a commercial photographer.

I wonder about the clothing too. It looks like clothing worn by rural women in Europe well into the twentieth century, especially in the former Soviet countries.

(I was just thinking last night of two old family photos I have, I think they're great-great grandparents, but I'll probably never know for sure.)
posted by mareli at 11:50 AM on March 13, 2013

One more thing I just remembered - if you have a box of photos and you can divide the photos in piles so all the photos that are exactly the same size are together (meaning they are all from the same camera and possibly from the same day of shooting), then most of the time ONE of those photos has writing on the back. That's my experience.
posted by cda at 11:52 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Do you have the actual dimensions of the photograph? It'd be good to know the actual measurements, to make a guesstimate of what type of film was possibly used for the photo, though that can get tricky and misleading pretty quickly.

Based on eyeballing it, the image looks like a similar aspect ratio produced by an old camera I have that shoots 127 film. 127 came out in 1912, but enlargements weren't frequently made until a few years later, and I think the Kodak Vest Pocket cameras shot 127 square images, only, until about 1924 or 1925...

So, I would guess that this image may have been shot between 1924ish-1935ish, maybe...

I could be totally, totally wrong.
posted by vivid postcard at 12:11 PM on March 13, 2013

Ah, shit - i forgot that there were totally Brownies that could have maybe made this image dating back to 1910, maybe even 1905...

Do you have the exact measurements of the photo? :)
posted by vivid postcard at 12:15 PM on March 13, 2013

As far as we all know the family at this point is your standard white A-S Protestants. There's nothing for these familIes that I can think of that would influence the fashion outside of the standard daily needs or styles.

It's the only photo of the bunch like this. But the 20s time frame meshes with the dates I have for potential candidates. The clothing seemed old-fashioned for the 20s based on my initial assumptions.

As for size: the copy I have is about 3 x 5 but since it's not the original I don't know if it was resized when printed.
posted by lbo at 12:19 PM on March 13, 2013

The clothing got me, too. The clothes remind me *a lot* of what my great-grandmother wore.
"The clothing worn by rural women in Europe well into the twentieth century, especially in the former Soviet countries," as mareli noted.
posted by Lescha at 12:24 PM on March 13, 2013

Did any of your male ancestors of the right age fight in WWI? It could be a picture of some woman met over there.
posted by mareli at 12:28 PM on March 13, 2013

There were only two ancestors that would have been the right age (18-30) to fight in WWI, but as far as I know, none of them went overseas.
posted by lbo at 12:35 PM on March 13, 2013

Based on the size, I would say it is more likely that it was shot mid-20s, or with a camera whose manufacturing date could have began around 1924/1927.

Note: there was one folding Brownie camera that shot film that could have resulted in a very similar, but not quite the same size, print. This is something to consider if you are off in your measurements...that Brownie began production in 1916ish and ended in 1926ish. The images it shot would have come back as 3.25x5.5 prints, which could, assuming someone had the negatives and a home darkroom, be printed at 3x5.07ish, which is very close...I don't actually know if people who shot brownies back in the day got their negatives back.

And again, with enlargements, cropping could throw these guesstimates off.
posted by vivid postcard at 12:49 PM on March 13, 2013

I have pics of my ex's family that look like that. They range in age from the 1920's to the 1950's. His grandmother especially still dressed in clothes like in your picture til she passed away in 1982. Apron, bonnet, the long skirt, the whole shooting match, especially when she was working in the yard. Yep, and we're in NC, lol.
posted by PJMoore at 12:55 PM on March 13, 2013

Also: if you have more information o the print itself, that may or may not be helpful. The scan looks like it is in great condition, but it could have been corrected in-computer, in some way.

If you know of anything unusual about the print (is it thicker than contemporary photos? Thinner? The same? Are there blemishes not apparent in the scan) that we can't see, that would also be helpful. Possibly - as far as we know, it could be a reprint of an older image.
posted by vivid postcard at 1:40 PM on March 13, 2013

Just google up some of the local museums and historical societies in the areas you listed and see if they can help narrow down the date and location.

There really are some great clues...her woven cap, the building, trees and how the field is cultivated. I'm sure a regional or local historian will be able to help you narrow this down.

Good luck and have fun.
posted by snsranch at 4:54 PM on March 13, 2013

The clothing --- the bonnet, the long skirt, the apron --- all make me think 'farm wife'. Were any of your candidates living on a farm in their old age?

(And while the outfit may seem old-fashioned for the 1920s, remember that older people in rural areas would've tended to be relatively conservative.)
posted by easily confused at 5:10 PM on March 13, 2013

I spoke to my grandmother again about this and she was able to shed a little more light on the picture's origin, which was information she didn't originally seem to know. I'll let it pass since she's up there in age.

The photograph is definitely from the Surry County, NC side of her family. So that narrows it down to two people, only one of which I know. Based on what I do know about those two families, it's probably the woman born in Indiana in 1839 who moved to NC before 1880 and lived until she was 92.

She also told me the original size of the photo was around 3" x 2". So based on that, and the fact that the aspect ratio of the picture as scanned is 1.44, I'm guessing the original size of the photo was 3.25" x 2.25". That seems a common size with early Brownie cameras, but that's only from my 5-minute Google search.

One interesting thing that's not entirely obvious from the photo is that the woman has a pipe in her mouth. There's a small line just below the woman's nose coming from her mouth which is the stem of the pipe catching some of the sunlight from the left. A little Photoshopping made it a bit more obvious.

The "snapshot" aspect was something I never considered. My initial thought was that the picture was from before 1900, but the 20s date makes more sense given the other information, namely the age of the most likely candidate for the subject.

So it seems likely that I have a snapshot of my third great grandmother.

Thanks everyone!
posted by lbo at 9:05 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

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