Tag Archives: unidentified photograph

Searching for Marguerite

There is both good and bad news about this photograph:


Unidentified photograph, ca. 1860-1866; digital image 2015, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2015. Image courtesy of D.B.

Twenty-seven years ago, my parents traveled to Massachusetts and made a stop in the community of Indian Orchard, where, my father knew, his ancestors had lived for a time in the latter half of the nineteenth century. As it turned out, these French Canadian immigrants had descendants who still lived in the area, and thanks to the staff at Saint Aloysius Parish, he was able to connect with one such descendant. Later, he began corresponding with two more cousins, both of whom were kind enough to share their research about our shared French Canadian and Acadian ancestors. Family lore and even a few photographs were also exchanged – including this photocopied image thought to be a photograph of Marguerite (Chicoine) Adam (1816-1878).1

Marguerite Chicoine is one of the first ancestral names I learned as a child and amateur family historian. I loved hearing that she was said to be Native American – a bit of family lore since (mostly) disproven, but it did work quite effectively to capture my attention at the time. I had always hoped to see the original of this photograph that was sent to us by our late cousin, but learned two years ago that an original may no longer exist. Apparently, when she was moved to a nursing home, her family history materials were thrown out.2 This serves as an important reminder to make an estate plan for the preservation of your own family history materials.

While I can’t rule out that somewhere out there, a cousin might hold another copy of this same photograph – that fortunate scenario has happened before – it’s also possible that this is the only version of this photograph that I will ever see. In any case, let’s take a look. Could this realistically be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine?

Marguerite died in Massachusetts in 1878 at the age of 62.3 Thus, this photograph would have to predate 1878. As the photocopy indicates that this was a carte de visite – most popular between approximately 1860 and 1866 – that is entirely possible.4 All of Marguerite’s fifteen known children were born before 1862, with the exception of her youngest, who was born five years later. As Marguerite relocated with her family from Quebec to Massachusetts circa 1864-65, it seems plausible that she may have had her picture taken during this time period as a memento to share with relatives at home.5

Marguerite was fifty years old when her youngest child was born at the tail end of the most likely timeframe for this photograph; in order to have had a healthy pregnancy so late, perhaps she had a more youthful appearance than one might otherwise imagine for a mother of fifteen. The woman appears to have dark hair without noticeable graying, and her dark complexion and strong nose make it easy to see how rumors of significant Native American ancestry could have gotten started. However, I find it difficult to get a sense for her age, due in part to the poor quality of the image. Could she be over forty-five, or is this woman in fact decades younger?

Marguerite did have three daughters who would have reached adulthood by the 1860s: Marguerite Adam, Marie Adam, and Julienne Adam.6 While I do have a photograph of Marguerite, who does not appear to be a match, could this photograph show instead either Marie or Julienne as a young woman in her early to mid-twenties?

The woman wears a buttoned shirtwaist with a windowpane pattern, the sleeves neither significantly fitted nor puffed, and a high linen band collar is visible.7 Her belted skirt is of a straightforward design. Notably, it is not worn with a fashionable hoop as one would typically expect in the 1860s; this more unassuming skirt would perhaps have been in line with what a woman in rural Quebec or an immigrant in a New England mill town might wear.8 The backdrop is similarly domestic in style with a practical wooden chair and what looks to be a fireplace.

The good news? This could be a photograph of Marguerite Chicoine. It depicts a dark-complected woman of evidently simple means who was photographed in the 1860s, a physical description, socioeconomic background, and timeline that fit with what is known about Marguerite.

The bad news? We may never know for sure. It seems equally plausible that could be a photograph of one of Marguerite’s daughters or a close relative. Lacking an original for closer examination, it can still be hoped that another copy of this photograph might exist in different branch of the family, and that it may hold additional clues regarding the true identification of the mysterious dark-haired Québécois.

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

Continue reading

Donning a Daycap for a Tintype Portrait

This woman, born perhaps in the first decade of the nineteenth century, likely lived to witness the Civil War. As inexpensive tintype photographs gained popularity, so did ornate albums where families could collect photographs of loved ones and famous folk alike.1 This tintype, measuring 1.5 x 2 inches, is closest in size to what was considered a sixteenth plate. The embossed paper sleeve in which it was placed brings the size to that of a carte de visite, allowing the tintype to be slipped easily into a slot in an album.2 Paper sleeves such as these were common in the 1860s; while this example doesn’t have a patriotic design that would directly suggest a date during the Civil War, it nevertheless seems probable that it is of that same era.

The woman’s dress has full sleeves, a high collar with possible tatted detail, and a row of fabric-covered buttons down the bodice. Her hair has a center part and is covered by a frilly, old-fashioned daycap with long ribbons that, left untied, frame her face.3 Although her mouth is turned downward, her expression seems kind as she gazes directly at the camera with large, light-colored eyes, her head tilted gently to the side.

Scanned Image 33

Unidentified woman wearing a daycap, possibly Mount Pleasant, Henry, Iowa, ca. 1860-1865; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

I can’t imagine that the woman is younger than fifty years of age; depending on how strenuous her experiences in life may have been, she could also be significantly older but in comparatively good health. She has pleasant features, and, though slim, she doesn’t appear terribly frail. However, her age is apparent as her face and neck are lined and her eyes are deeply set. Daycaps, such as the one she wears, were popular with conservative, older women during this decade.4

This unidentified photograph comes from an album linked to the family of Civil War veteran Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry, Iowa.5 If I were to attempt to identify the woman in a related family tree, I would look for a woman born circa 1800-1810, perhaps a grandmother or aunt who may have been close to the family. Although paper sleeves made it easier to label tintypes with the names of loved ones – as did photograph albums – perhaps this woman’s identity was so well known to the family that they saw no reason to record her name.

Continue reading

A Deadwood Mystery

After years of wondering about an unidentified photograph from Deadwood in my family’s collection, a second photograph of the same couple turned up in the collection of an extended family member. In my mind, while just one might have come from, say, a neighbor who had gone off to the Wild West and wished to be remembered to those back in southeastern South Dakota, where this branch of my family lived, two suggest that this couple may actually have had a closer connection to my family. Were they friends, or were they relatives?


Unidentified couple, Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota Territory, ca. 1884-1890; digital image 2013, privately held by [personal information withheld], 2014.

Unidentified_Deadwood_Couple_02In the first photograph, a couple poses for what could be a wedding portrait, as the woman arranges her hands in such a way that a ring is visible along with two bracelets. The man has a distinctive high forehead, large ears, and a long beard. He wears a dark three-piece suit and a plaid tie. The woman has a broad face and light-colored eyes; her hair is curled at the temples and arranged in a looped braid at the back, a style that became popular in the 1870s.1 She is corseted and wears what looks to be a heavy gown, with a high collar and bustle. A single row of buttons adorns her bodice, and matching patterned material is visible at her collar, cuffs, and on a unique side panel of her skirt.

According to the information stamped on this cabinet card, it was made at Excelsior Studios, located either in Deadwood or Lead City, Dakota. Deadwood and Lead were founded in 1876 during the Black Hills Gold Rush, and the place name “Dakota” suggests that the portrait was made before (or immediately after) South Dakota achieved statehood in 1889. Thus, an initial time span for this photograph, as well as the one to follow, can be set at 1876-1890.

I’ve been unable to turn up anything about the Excelsior Studio online, although the small “K” emblem made me wonder whether any early photographers in Deadwood had the last initial “K.” As it turns out, a strikingly similar style of cabinet card can be attributed to Deadwood photographer Charles Kersting; perhaps he operated his business under the name Excelsior for a period of time. Online sources suggest that he may have arrived in Deadwood in 1884, at which time he joined forces with photographer George W. Scott.2


Unidentified family, Deadwood, Dakota Territory, ca. 1883-1887; digital image 2010, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The second photograph seems to feature the same couple, although at a different time; the woman appears more slender and has styled her hair differently, and, of course, she and her husband both wear different clothes. This time, a young girl joins them in the photograph, most certainly their daughter. She looks to be about five or six years old; while standing next to her seated father, she places her hand over her his and leans back against his shoulder. Her dropped waist dress falls to her knees with a pleated skirt, belt, and a fancy collar. Her mother again wears a row of buttons on her bodice, and her draped overskirt over knife pleats was of a style popular in the mid-1880s.3 In many ways, her dress is similar in style to that of the previous photograph.

This cabinet card, printed with a pink pattern, bears the name of the photographer Geo. W. Scott. Biographical information suggests that Scott was in operation in Deadwood for four years, beginning in 1883.4 It was in 1884 that Charles Kersting allegedly took over a branch of his business.5

Initially, I wanted to date the photograph of the couple alone before that of the couple with their child; however, the dates of operation of the Deadwood photography studios suggest that the reverse may also have been true. Perhaps it was not a wedding portrait after all! In any case, for a child of five or six to have been photographed by Scott in Deadwood between the years of 1883 and 1887, a birth date of somewhere between 1877 and 1881 can be assumed. This provides an essential clue.

The next step is to learn whether any of my direct ancestors had kin who lived in or near Deadwood. If a couple had a daughter between roughly 1877 and 1881, who happened to be the only child in their household at some point between 1883 and 1887, then that would make them strong contenders for the individuals featured in these photographs. Whoever they may be, I imagine that they must have had interesting stories to tell about life in Deadwood’s first decade!

Continue reading

A Spectacle in Spectacles

A close look at this photograph reveals something rather unusual: all four women wear pince-nez spectacles.1 In addition, one appears to clutch a writing tablet of sorts, lending a studious air to the scene despite the blur of a moving animal at left. Although these four women have posed for a tintype, which might lead one to believe that it was taken before card photographs exploded in popularity, this image can in fact be dated to the late 1880s.


Four unidentified women wearing spectacles, likely Mount Pleasant, Henry, Iowa, ca. 1885-1890; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

The bespectacled women are firmly corseted in high-collared dresses. The single and double rows of close-set buttons featured on their bodices were in vogue at this time, as were their high, ruffled collars.2 Pleats at the hems of their skirts can also be attributed to this time period.3

This tintype comes from an album that can be linked to the family of Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa. The album page in which this tintype rests is labeled in pencil, with the names Exsie and Mollie at the top, and Franc and Laura at the bottom.4 It’s possible, given the date of this photograph and the perceived age of the young woman at lower right, that this Laura could be the daughter of Jesse M. Smith, Laura B. Smith, pictured here when she was, perhaps, eighteen or twenty years old.5

There are other possibilities. As Exsie is an unusual name, I decided to search on Ancestry.com for young women named Exsie who might have resided in Iowa in the 1880s. A stroke of luck revealed just one – Exsie B. Sayles, who was a resident of Mount Pleasant as of 1885.6 A local history page shared that Exsie was a member of the Mount Pleasant High School graduating class of 1886, along with, notably, Franc Pitcher, Laura S. Mitts, Mary Wright, and a handful of others. 7 Mollie can be a nickname for Mary, so could these be other contenders for the women in the photograph? Although Laura B. Smith was not named as a graduate, school records may provide additional clues.

One might assume that these women had the specific goal of appearing scholarly for all to agree to be photographed in their spectacles. It seems likely that they were friends or classmates; perhaps they were celebrating an educational achievement, such as their high school graduation, or were acknowledging their involvement in an intellectual club of some kind, such as a literary society. No matter the occasion, this tintype offers a suggestion of the women’s personalities and interests, as well as a fun look at stylish vintage eyewear.

Continue reading

Fashionable Winter Wear


Unidentified couple in winter attire, Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa, ca. 1889; digital image 2014, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

This Valentine’s Day, perhaps you’re looking forward to a special outing with a loved one. You might dress up, or you might bundle up, depending on the temperature outside. In any case, you likely won’t be decked out in fashionable furs like this couple, who dressed for the winter weather in Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa circa 1889. This cabinet card photograph comes from an unidentified antique album featuring a family of Swedish immigrants.1 The photographer – J. E. Johnson of 705 Fourth Street in Sioux City – operated his studio from at least 1887-1891.2

A newspaper column in a nearby community in South Dakota reported in 1888, “It is a lively competition between the comparatively old-fashioned sealskin cloaks and the newer, more picturesque wraps that reach to the ground.”3 The unidentified woman pictured here wears a toggle-fastened coat with a fur collar and cuffs, and she sports a striking fur cap that immediately made me think of one worn by Laura Ingalls Wilder in a photograph taken in the latter half of the 1880s. Her outfit is completed by a pair of fitted gloves, and a pleated skirt extends below the hemline of her coat.

The unidentified man wears a toggle-fastened overcoat of heavy cloth that reaches below the knee, also trimmed with a fur collar and cuffs. He tucks a bare hand into a pocket; the other grasps the spare glove and his bowler hat. Visible beneath his coat are distinctive striped pants. While flipping through Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer, an excellent reference for dating nineteenth century photographs, I spotted an example of another young man wearing striped pants in a photograph dated 1889. In fact, he leaned against what appeared to be the very same pedestal. As it turned out, it was. The photograph of a young man in striped pants featured in Dressed for the Photographer was also taken at the Johnson studio in Sioux City.4 Apparently, striped pants were at their peak in popularity at this time!

The couple pictured here seem relatively young, and perhaps were recently married. If they, like others in this album, were Swedish immigrants, they may have shared copies of this photograph with family members who remained in the old country. Even if they weren’t dressed for a date in the modern sense of the term, they certainly look prepared to take a romantic stroll downtown!

Continue reading

Economical Fashions and the Civil War

Scanned Image 25

Unidentified photograph of a young woman, Mount Pleasant, Iowa, ca. 1863-1865; digital image 2012, privately held by Melanie Frick, 2014.

This lovely carte de visite offers several indications as to its date, from both the name of the photographer, and the unique style of dress. Unfortunately, although the photograph comes from an album linked to the family of Jesse M. Smith of Mount Pleasant, Henry County, Iowa, it remains unidentified.1

If your ancestors lived in Henry County, Iowa, in the early 1860s, take note – could this young woman, born circa 1850, be in your family tree?

The slim young woman in the photograph, perhaps fifteen years of age, wears her dark hair with a center part, likely pulled back into a snood. With one hand on the back of an ornate chair, the other holds a straw hat. She is outfitted in a style distinctive to the Civil War era. Her full-sleeved Garibaldi shirtwaist is of plain muslin, accented by a wide Swiss belt. It is tucked into a skirt fashioned from an old dress, something seen often at this time when there was a need to be economical.2

Scanned Image 25 back

Stamped on the back of the photograph is the identification, “Leisenring Bros., Photographers, Mount Pleasant, Iowa.” Although the Leisenring family operated a studio in Mount Pleasant for many years, the Leisenring brothers managed it together for only a short period of time, from 1863-1867. The name was changed to reflect this joint ownership.3

After putting these clues together, this carte de visite can be dated to a narrow time frame of approximately 1863-1865. Perhaps a local soldier carried a copy with him throughout the war, or maybe the young woman simply wished to have her photograph taken in a new outfit that she had likely sewn herself. Regardless, it provides a unique study of the ways in which the economy may have impacted the fashion choices of southeastern Iowans during the Civil War.

For more unidentified photographs from this album, click here and here.

Continue reading