Solving Mystery Photos

About 8 years ago, I received a copy of some family photos from a distant relation. At the time, although I was into genealogy, I had only been doing it on and off over the previous 4 years and to be honest, I probably wasn’t that serious about it so I didn’t give them too much thought as the photos had no names attached to them.

Seven years later I found them again on an old computer hard drive but had no idea who I’d originally got them from, who the photos were of or even which particular family they belonged to. I sort of remembered them being from my Tonkin branch, but let this be a lesson to all…never rely on your memory for anything. Write things down, where/who you got items from, what information you have on them, dates, names, places, anything can be a helpful clue in the future.

These days, photos are probably one of my favourite aspects of genealogy. I love the social history side of it and to be able to see what people were wearing, the expressions on their face that may hint towards their personality, or even looking out for things such as…’hey that lady from 1870 has my nose!’ can all be really exciting. Just the mere thought of seeing a really old photo and contemplating the fact that the person in it was born in the 18th Century, can be the mind-clearing equivalent of  ‘what’s the sound of one hand clapping?’

So these photos I’d stumbled across again were screaming out to me to be named. I decided to put them all up on my online Flickr album and posted the link on a few messageboards to see if anyone could help solve the mysteries.
Within a few days I’d been able to name almost half of the photos just by trawling through photos on and fortunately a few distant relatives saw my posts and were able to identify a few more. Great success!

riley (2)But there were still a handful left including one that looked very, very old, featuring an elderly couple with the old woman clutching what looked like a letter and looking forlornly into the camera. Was this my first clue?
Lesson 2: Trust your  instincts.

Putting the facts I already knew into place, that all the family from that side of the tree had immigrated from England by 1850, I had the impression that this photo had been sent from a family member that remained in England, to their son, daughter, brother, sister, niece or nephew over in Australia. Perhaps the letter the old lady was clutching was one she had received from them?Symbolism was very popular in the Victorian era so it pays to look at everything!

Another thing that supports this theory is the background, Western Australia didn’t exactly have the most elaborate backgrounds in the early days of photography, so again, it’s pointing to the Mother Land as being the likely source.

Next thing to do is date it. You can do this by a number of means. Firstly the clothing worn will always give you a massive clue, usually to within 20 years at the most, of the photo date, but certain fashion clues can narrow a photo to as little as a few years (leg-of-mutton sleeves, I’m looking at you!).
Also take into consideration the age of the person. Elderly people were more likely to still be wearing clothes that might be 10-20 years old. It’s the same today where older people might stick to the fashion they grew up with. Younger people are much easier to date and you can usually get a guesstimate to at least within a decade of the photo date as they kept up to date with fashion trends.

If you don’t know much about vintage fashion, there are plenty of websites on the Internet that can help. I’ll name a few at the end of the post which give a good range of photos showing fashion over the years, although you’ll soon be able to just look at a photo and give a rough estimate. Women’s clothing is often a lot easier to date than men’s.

Easy things to remember are:

  • Black, although used prior became a lot more popular in the 1860s due to Queen Victoria going into mourning over the death of her husband, Prince Albert. It was rarely worn by women in large amounts, unless they were in mourning, they would then wear less black over time as the mourning period passed.
  • Tight corsetry and bustles didn’t come into fashion until the late 1870’s and the skirt became a lot more column like.
  • Prior to around 1875 skirts were full and sleeves were loose to the wrist. Stripes or contrasting coloured detail were also popular, especially in the 1860’s. A round skirt was more likely to be before 1860, over the next decade the skirts became flatter at the front and by the 1870’s became elongated at the back.
  • After 1880, ribbons and trims became very popular and would sometimes cover a dress.
  • If you can see women’s shoulders, it’s most likely to be pre 1850. There are less examples in photos as commercial photography was only in it’s infancy then, but can help with dating paintings. Necklines would rise dramatically after 1850, up until 1910 in day wear, although many evening dresses allowed the arms and chest to be shown.
  • For wedding photos, white started to come back into vogue with Queen Victoria but really reached its peak around 1890 when big, frilly, white dresses with all the trims and giant leg-of-mutton sleeves were all the rage.
  • White and lighter colours became more acceptable to wear during the day around the turn of the century. So a lacy, white, day dress with lots of trim has a rough range of 1895 – 1910.
  • Big, wide hats were also in fashion by 1900 and supported by big, fluffy, hairstyles on the wearer, they peaked around 1910.
  • If dealing with American photos, they did tend to be a lot more decorated earlier and southern states showed a bit more skin earlier as well.

So back to my mystery photo. Elderly people …so will have to give it a wider date estimate… full, probably round skirt, so that suggests maybe 1860’s. The lace trim around her neck was common for most of the 1800’s so that doesn’t give too much away and the bonnet looks about middle of the century. The skirt is probably our biggest identifier here, so we’re looking at around 1850-1869. They don’t exactly look rich, so that would rule out the earlier dates.
Older women and those who were poorer tended to keep to the round skirt without bustles or crinolines, so this can push out the date a bit more, let’s say 1860-1885.

Another thing to look at is the type of photo. This involves a little research into the history of photography, but I’ll try and give a quick summary.
Commercial photography started in the 1840’s although mainly used by those who had a bit of extra money. The first photos were called ‘daguerreotypes’ and the image was developed onto a metal plate, covered with glass and usually set in a frame.

Next came Ambrotypes where the image was set on glass with a dark background behind it to show the image. These became more popular in the late 1850s.

Finally a paper printed photo, the albumen, was developed in 1850 and started to be the dominant form of photography by the end of the decade with the advent of carte-de-visite cards (CDV), which became almost like trading cards with their popularity and small size, especially when prints of the celebrities of the day (usually Royals or Political figures) came out.
CDV’s usually had the photographers name and address written somewhere on the card, which can also help in identifying the location and date.

These and later the larger cabinet cards in 1870, were the most commonly used up until the turn of the century when Kodak introduced the Brownie camera.  From here on you’d start to use fashion and other clues to figure out the date.


Although colour photography had been around to a very small extent in the late 1800s, it wasn’t until the Autochrome in 1907 that it started to resemble real life. An expensive item, it wasn’t until the 1940’s that colour photography started to became more mainstream and used by the public.

I love Autochrome’s, another post on that to follow later, but just take a look at the colours in this photo of an Irish woman from 1913, the colours are spectacular!

So again, back to the mystery photo. A little clue exists here on the side of the print where you can see it is on card and not tin or glass, so effectively we can say this probably would have been taken after 1855. All up I’m going with a good guesstimate of 1860-1885.

Now location…this is a LOT harder than dating. If you already have the photographer name and address then this is solved for you and more information can be found by searching the name.

But this photo unfortunately did not have that, and so in comes your good friend, Google Image Search. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, next time you go to the page, have a look at the menu bar across the top and you’ll see Search, Images, Map, Play etc… click on Images and you can now search for…well images!

There are two ways to search, either with keywords or by actually uploading your photo to see if anything matches it. It’s possible someone else has a copy of the photo, knows who is in it and has put it online for the world to see.

For keywords, now is the time to use your brain, just search through a whole load of phrases you think might come up. What we’re looking for is an image with the same arch background next to a window. So you can start searching a combination of any of the following “vintage photography, victorian photography, portrait studio, photographers, 1860 (or any other date), carte-de-visite, CDV, pioneer photography” get creative because you never know what the photo might be linked to. But essentially Google Image allows you to search a large amount of images without having to visit each individual website. Another option is if you roughly know the location start using known photographers of the era and search their name.

But surprisingly, you know where I ended up finding a photo with the same background? On Ebay!
One day I just happened to be on there, decided to search just CDV on the UK site and voila! There was my studio background!  Another photo on the item showed the reverse of the card with the photographers name and address. The photo was taken in Deal, Kent, England.

I immediately knew who it could be.

For those following my tree, John Foss Tonkin arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia in 1830. He had a son Edwin who married Elizabeth Riley. Now her father was a convict, brought out to Australia from….Deal, Kent in 1850. So I’m 95% certain that the photo is of his mother and father, who I checked, were both alive up until 1880 and their ages match with the people in the photo.

Mystery solved!!

Websites with examples of Victorian dress:


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