“The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation”
By Alexandra Alter
Wall Street Journal
Internationally-known genealogical photo expert Maureen Taylor is to speak at our Patriot’s Day Banquet on Sunday, April 15th, at the Colonial Inn in Concord. Please make your reservation on line or download a registration form. Anyone interested in scheduling a consultation with Maureen Taylor on Sunday is welcome to contact her through her website. We look forward to seeing you!
Maureen Taylor has dated a photograph to 1913 by studying the size and shape of a Lion touring car’s headlamps. Armed with her collection of 19th-century fashion magazines, she can pinpoint the brief period when Victorian women wore their bangs in tight curls rather than swept back. Using a technique borrowed from the CIA, she identified a photo of Jesse James by examining the shape of his right ear.
With millions of Americans obsessively tracing their roots, Ms. Taylor has emerged as the nation’s foremost historical photo detective. During a recent meeting of the Maine Genealogical Society, attendees lined up a dozen deep as she handled their images with a cotton glove and peered at the details through a photographer’s loupe. One man offered a portrait photo and asked if it could be of his great grandmother, who died in 1890. “It’s not,” Ms. Taylor said after about 15 seconds; she’d dated the hairstyle and billowy blouse to the early 20th century. When another attendee asked why her great-great-grandfather was wearing small hoops in his ears in a portrait, Ms. Taylor explained, “He was in the maritime trade.”
Each day, millions of people visit genealogy Internet sites such as Ancestry.com, which now has 15 million users, and has seen sales balloon to $151 million last year, three times the 2002 total. Ms. Taylor and a handful of other detectives are filling a growing niche in the genealogy business: dating and identifying the subjects of photographs.
Since she launched her business 10 years ago, Ms. Taylor says, she’s tackled some 10,000 photo puzzles. Working out of a cluttered office in her Westwood, Mass., home, she receives about 30 requests each week, up from five a decade ago. She is sought out by collectors, historians and even TV producers to weigh in on controversies. Her current preoccupation: finding lost or unidentified photos of people who lived during the Revolutionary War.
Ms. Taylor, who charges $60 an hour, has learned to spot details that reveal not only a photo’s period, but the story behind it. A broom at the feet of a couple in a mid-19th-century portrait, for instance, often marks it as a wedding picture. A photograph of a baby in a carriage from the 1860s might not be a birth announcement, but a death card; in that period of high infant mortality, dead infants were commonly photographed in carriages. A 19th-century woman with unusually short hair may have had scarlet fever, because it was common to shave a victim’s head.
The most satisfying cases, Ms. Taylor says, are those that reunite people with lost pieces of their past.
When her 85-year-old mother moved into a nursing home, Cassie Horner, a 50-year-old free-lance writer in Plymouth, Vt., inherited more than 100 photographs, most of which were unidentified. In February, Ms. Horner and a cousin hired Ms. Taylor to analyze the images, especially a tintype of two women and a baby. Ms. Taylor dated the photo within two years of its creation, just by flipping it over; she recognized a Civil War tax stamp that was used from Aug. 1, 1864, to Aug. 1, 1866. With that time period, the cousins determined one woman was their great-grandmother, Myalina Gage, the eldest of 13 children, with her younger sister Malinda. The baby was likely one of Myalina’s children who died.
For years, Brad Leonard of Missoula, Mont., puzzled over the contents of an album he believed had belonged to his great-grandmother. So in January, he sent more than 50 images to Ms. Taylor. She spent four months researching Rhode Island photo studios, studying the family tree and comparing facial features. Eventually, she identified 25 of Mr. Leonard’s ancestors in images she dated from 1860 to 1900. She said one was of his great-grandfather John, whose picture he had never seen. In one portrait, John Leonard leans jauntily on an ornamental column, wearing a bowler and a stylish pinstriped suit. It was strange, Mr. Leonard says, to see his own long, straight nose and deep-set eyes looking back at him. “Sometimes I think it would be nice if we could have a cocktail party and all meet,” he says of his ancestors.
Ms. Taylor says her job is more of a passion than a lucrative enterprise. As a child in Bristol, R.I., she occupied herself on snowy days by studying old family photos from her mother’s closet. After earning a history degree in 1978, she joined the Rhode Island Historical Society, where she worked as an assistant photo curator and genealogical researcher. To augment her $6,000 salary, she took up a paper route. In the mornings, she worked on genealogy, poring over family records and church rosters. Afternoons were devoted to studying nuances of old photos like tintypes (they’re made of iron, so magnets will stick to them) and daguerreotypes (they have reflective surfaces like mirrors). When the photos are well preserved, she says, “the people look like they’re so real they could step out of the frame.”
There are currently about half a dozen family historians who specialize in dating images by clothing, photographic style or props. Some are using scientific methods to date photos, rather than focusing on details like clothing. Colleen Fitzpatrick, an optical scientist and genealogist who also studies handwriting, tries to answer questions about photographs by measuring shadows — which might hint at what time of day they were taken — or by measuring the dimensions of photos to determine what kind of camera was used. Kathleen Hinckley, executive director of the Association of Professional Genealogists, says Ms. Taylor has risen to the top of the field by bridging the disciplines of genealogy, art history, costume history and cultural anthropology.
The first popular photographs, daguerreotypes, appeared in France and England in the 1830s. These small, reflective, metal images typically have protective cases and can last hundreds of years. The medium proved immensely popular. By the 1850s, studios made ambrotypes, images captured on glass with a mixture of ether and gun cotton; tintypes, photos made by coating iron plates with light-sensitive chemicals; and card photographs, prints mounted on cardboard. When candid photography arrived in 1889 with the invention of the Kodak snapshot, family collections swelled with shots of christenings, birthdays and everyday scenes. Problematically, few people thought to label them.
Today, old photographs sit in attics or unlabeled boxes at antiques fairs and thrift shops, or drift unclaimed on eBay. Some Web sites hawk unidentified portraits, branding them “instant ancestors,” while others specialize in reuniting orphaned photos with their families. One site, deadfred.com, has a database with more than 70,000 abandoned photos dating back as far as 1840; more than 1,100 have been claimed.
One client of Ms. Taylor’s, a New York artist, asked her to determine whether one of the four men in an 1874 photo was Jesse James. Using a technique she’d found in a book by a former CIA analyst, Ms. Taylor studied the shape of the man’s right ear and compared it to photos known to be of James. A bump on the man’s helix, combined with a receding hairline and narrow jaw, identified him as the infamous outlaw.
On a typical morning, Ms. Taylor is at her desk by 8, scanning photos uploaded to her Web site or submitted by email. She often prints 20 or so and tacks them on her bulletin board to mull over. Sometimes, they stare back at her for months. One troublesome photograph, of a woman in a dress whose style was difficult to date, stayed on her board for a year before Ms. Taylor hit upon the answer. The woman, who was likely poor, had resewn the dress several times.
Ms. Taylor is a compulsive collector of obscure reference books (one of her prize finds was an 1884 geographical dictionary called the Lippincott Gazetteer of the World), and has floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with guides to gravestone markers, buttons, shoes, Victorian costumes, encyclopedias of United States Army uniforms, quilt-pattern catalogs, encyclopedias of paper products, fabric swatches, stamp books, a manual on the symbolism of fraternal organizations and a guide to photo fakery written by a former official at the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center.
After Ms. Taylor dated an unknown photo as 1900-1910, Rita Werner of Taylorville, Ill., was able to identify the women as (from left) her great-grandmother, her great-aunt and her great-grandmother’s sister.
She’s constantly scavenging for old photographs, and has amassed an entire closet full of antique photos from flea markets, antique fairs and online auction sites. Among them is a cardboard box of 19th-century family portraits that she bought two years ago at an antiques fair in Brimfield, Mass. Each photograph is labeled according to the person’s relationship to a mystery woman named Louise. “I haven’t gotten to it yet,” says Ms. Taylor, who’s tall and slim with icy blue eyes. “I still have to find Louise.”
When an answer can’t be found in one of her books or in images she’s already identified and dated, she hunts down other experts to learn about horticulture, medical photography or 19th-century weapons.
Sometimes, her conclusions topple well-established family lore.
Marjorie Osterhout, 46, a free-lance writer in Seattle, was fairly certain she’d found a photo of a relative who’d served in the Civil War (see image). The thin, stern-looking gentleman wears an ammunition belt and poses with a rifle and a black dog at his feet. She learned she had a tintype, a cheap, durable photograph Civil War soldiers often mailed home to relatives.
In June, she submitted the image to Ms. Taylor to test the theory, and an answer arrived three days later. The photograph did fit the Civil War period, but the man’s high-crowned leather cap differed from the uniform caps soldiers wore. His strange, lace-up shirt wasn’t part of a military uniform or even a work shirt. A military expert helped Ms. Taylor determine that the gun, which appears to be an 1866-model Winchester repeating rifle, was not military-issue. Looking beyond the soldiers in her family, Ms. Osterhout found a match: Samuel Downs of Vineland, N.J., a blacksmith who, for reasons that remain unknown, did not serve in the Civil War despite being the right age. Mr. Downs might have been posing in his hunting gear. “I didn’t know we had a hunter in the family,” Ms. Osterhout says.
Ms. Taylor gives about 20 lectures a year, has a column in Family Tree Magazine and writes books, including “Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs” (2005). Her latest quest may well be her most ambitious. Using census records, Ms. Taylor and a colleague, David Lambert, are tracking down photos of Revolutionary War veterans who lived to see the photography era in the late 1830s. So far, the researchers have found 100 images. They’ve also found photos of Revolutionary War families, including widows, by searching public and private collections for 1840s-era photographs of elderly people.
“We’re looking for pictures people don’t know they have,” says Ms. Taylor, who’s working on a book about the topic. “The majority of photographs from that period are still unidentified. They’re lost.”
Write to Alexandra Alter at email@example.com
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, October 12, 2007, page W1