Before I begin, I love Maureen Taylor's blog, Photo Detective. This week my ancestor is up for worst hair in (possibly) photographic history. If you see this before Sunday, April 10, please go through and vote for me! My picture is of Sophie Bentley (doesn't she look like fun?) and you can vote through this post. I could win Maureen Taylor's latest book on dating hairstyles. Thanks!
Now, a disclaimer: I am certainly no expert on dating photographs. Take everything here with a grain of salt; I'm just trying to figure this stuff out and learning new things every time. But here's how I go about trying to learn more about an image.
I've always liked this lady; I think she looks kind. Plus, I find her clothing interesting. But I haven't really worked on this particular picture for two reasons: I have no idea who she is and there is no photographer information to get me started. Intimidating.
What I do know about it: this photo came from the album owned by my GG grandmother, Lizzie Bentley. That means this lady may have a connection with the Bentley, Tupper, Ells, or Howard families of Colchester County, Nova Scotia. Since Lizzie was deaf, this lady could also be part of the deaf community.
Something else I can't mess up: this is a tintype. The tintype was first introduced in 1856 but continued to be popular right up until the early 1900s; that's not so helpful. Thankfully that paper sleeve is much more datable. In fact, there are words on the right side of the paper sleeve: PATENT MARCH 7 1865. According to PhotoTree.com, the embossed style of paper frame here was first patented in 1865 (yup) and was popular into the early 1870s. Yay! That narrows it down considerably. PhotoTree.com is a great site, by the way. You can browse many photos, all with estimated (and some confirmed) dates for comparison.
Next up: costume. The first thing that stood out to me is her interesting belt. There's a photo of one in Dressed for the Photographer* by Joan L. Severa, who calls it a Swiss belt. My lady's is black and nicely embroidered. Well, an excerpt of The Dictionary of Fashion History is online and it happens to include a bit about Swiss belts: "Fashionable 1815 and 1816 [nope; before photography]; again in 1860s, 1880-1900. A waistband broadening in front to a lozenge shape, pointed above and below" (pg 200). Discovering your Ancestry through Family Photographs says wide belts were popular in from 1860 to 1865 (pg 67). So now we are narrowed down a smidge from 1865 to about 1870, but probably closer to mid-decade.
I also can't help but notice how full her skirt is. I'm pretty sure it used a hoop; according to Dressed for the Photographer, "during the midsixties...the wearing of hoops had become so universal and expected that any woman without one was the object of unwelcome attention" (pg 201). Her sleeves are pretty wide as well, and her shirt has small buttons down the front. She is wearing some sort of long necklace with a slide, and has a bracelet on each wrist. All of these details seem to be consistent with our mid-sixties estimate.
Now hair. Our lady's hair is parted in the middle and smoothly tied behind her head, leaving the ears visible. Another great part of PhotoTree is the ability to view all photos with confirmed dates in a certain time period. Check it out: our lady seems to have a fashionable hairstyle for the 1860s; by the 1870s, hair was much...bigger.
So, I think the date range of 1865-1870, but probably closer to 1865, is about as good as I am going to get. I'm happy! That was during Lizzie Bentley's time at The Deaf and Dumb institution; could this woman be associated with the school? I may not know who this lady is, but at least I know a bit more about her. And it was kinda fun, right?
- Dressed for the Photographer by Joan L. Severa
- Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs by Maureen Taylor (I have the 2000 edition)
- The Dictionary of Fashion History by By Valerie Cumming, C. W. Cunnington, and P. E. Cunnington
*This book was a splurge, but it is absolutely fascinating. The descriptions of costumes found in portraits are incredibly detailed. Actually, they are so much so that I think The Dictionary of Fashion would helpful to use with it; I don't always get what things like "point d'esprit" and "Zouave jackets" are (talk about a splurge).