How to Date Old Photos of Our Ancestors with Early Fashion Trends

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers and historical books to show how illustrations of fashion trends in hats can help you date an undated family photograph in your collection.

One of my earlier GenealogyBank blog posts, “How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers,” showed how to date an old photograph by comparing the clothes worn by the people in the photo with clothing illustrations from vintage advertisements in historical newspapers.

One of the points I made in that article was that if you can find a newspaper advertisement that matches a hat found in an old photograph, use the newspaper to establish the time period that photo might have been taken. This is an important determination, as it can eliminate relatives not from that time period as possible candidates for the people in the photo.

In today’s blog article, I’m following up on this topic of how earlier fashion trends found in old newspapers can help you date an old, undated photograph by focusing on hats.

First Newspaper Photograph Published in 1880

Photographs published in newspapers can be used to study early fashion trends—but only after 1879.

That’s because it took until 1880 for the first photograph to be published in a newspaper. Prior to that time, you’ll have to rely on newspaper illustrations and other aids to date those troublesome shoeboxes of unidentified, undated family photos.

The Library of Congress’s illustrated Guide on Pictorial Journalism, which I recommend reading, explains:

“The first photograph published in an American newspaper—actually a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph—appeared in the Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Before that time it was common practice for American editors to enlist artists to sketch and report on news events, from steamboat explosions to the battles of the Civil War.”

In this 1875 illustration from the Daily Graphic, note that New York Senator Francis Kernan’s image was derived from a photograph by Gardner, of Utica, New York.

illustration of New York Senator Francis Kernan, Daily Graphic newspaper article 23 February 1875

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 23 February 1875, page 4

Prior to 1880, we must be creative to find clothing illustrative of specific time periods.

I’d also like to stress that old photographs may not have depicted ancestors in everyday dress, as photographers were notorious for utilizing props, lighting, and fashion accessories to make black and white results more appealing. They soon learned that dark colors needed to contrast with light, or the results were one dark mess.

Advice for getting a good photographic result was common, as demonstrated in this 1882 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette that is full of recommendations on how to dress for a photographic session.

Dressing for a Photograph, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 26 May 1882

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 26 May 1882, page 2

The article advised: “The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such as will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys [plain or twill-woven cloth], poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better.”

Later on, the article noted that ladies “with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.”

Don’t necessarily believe that your early photographs are extremely old. Of course, it’s possible that a rare ambrotype from the 1850s or daguerreotype from the 1860s lies in your collection, but more likely you’re looking at later photographs.

Examples of Early Hat Fashion

So, given these considerations, is there much value in examining earlier newspapers for American fashion trends to help with your family photos identification?

Yes, but you might find it easier to target specific attire—such as hats.

These 1834 advertisements from the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics include simple illustrations: one of a buffalo, and the other of top hats. From these old newspaper ads, one gets the impression that our ancestors paraded around in attire made from animal products such as skins from buffalo, lynx, muskrat, seals and even swans.

Notice that gentlemen were purchasing beaver and satin hats, and that the youth of earlier days wore caps of sea otter, fur seal, leather and cloth. Boas, fur capes, and fur trimmings were available for the ladies.

ads for hats, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper advertisements 22 November 1834

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 22 November 1834, page 4

If you are interested in researching early hat fashions, search for articles in connection with religious and ethnic groups. Some describe their costumes in great detail.

This 1850 article from the Washington Reporter remarked on the collarless coats and broad-brimmed hats worn by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Why the Quakers Wear Their Hats, Washington Reporter newspaper article 4 September 1850

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1850, page 1

This 1860 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed Panama hats, made by South American Native Americans from the bombonaxa plant.

Panama Hats, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 October 1860

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 October 1860, page 2

Examples of Old Advertising Cards

Before I finish this article about dating family photos using period fashion clues, I’d like to mention that there is a most exciting option within GenealogyBank to examine clothing illustrations: advertising cards.

By exploring the Historical Book Collection you’ll find examples of advertising cards dating back to the 1700s. Many are works of art, and if you search by keywords such as “Hats,” “Hat Maker,” or “Hat Manufacturer,” you’ll learn that this industry was of greater importance than most realize.

Advertising card from 1790 for Sam Sturgis, hat maker

Advertising card from 1790

Although C. C. Porter’s Hat Manufacturing Company probably didn’t market to Native American Indians, this advertising card from around 1830 has a fine example of an Indian costume and headdress.

Advertising card from 1830 for C. C. Porter Hat Manufacturing Company

Advertising card from 1830

This next old advertising card shows a dog swimming in the water fetching a top hat—suggesting it must have blown from the head of the man behind him. Luckily, H. D. Tregear was known to manufacture waterproof hats!

Advertising card from 1830 for H. D. Tregear  hat maker

Advertising card from 1830

You might think waterproofing apparel items was a new invention, but out of curiosity I searched the historical newspaper archives and found reports of waterproof hats as early as 1765. Apparently there was a European waterproof hat called a Nivernois that became popular. (I’ll leave it to you to research how this feature was achieved.)

notice about waterproof hats, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 21 February 1765

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 21 February 1765, page 2

Notice in the following advertising card, from Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works) in 1837, a sampling of lady’s bonnets and the clothing of those wandering on the lawn in the illustration. If those bonnets were made of straw, it’s not likely many have survived—making these illustrations of great historical importance.

Advertising card from 1837 for Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works)

Advertising card from 1837

Here is an advertising card from John W. D. Hall of Taunton, which shows greater detail of top hats than found in the first example above.

Advertising card from 1840 for John W. D. Hall hat maker

Advertising card from 1840

This fashion trend remained popular with men for decades, as seen in this 16 May 1861 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln seated next to a table, upon which he’s placed his prominent top hat.

photo of American President Abraham Lincoln seated at a small table

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-15178. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a17427/

Hats off to any of you who can find an ancestor’s photo with a top hat!

As these illustrations, photograph and advertising cards have shown, pictures from old newspapers can show you what clothing people from a certain time period were wearing—and just might provide the clue you’ve long been looking for to date certain undocumented family photographs in your collection.

Fun Family Folklore: Are These Superstitions Fact or Myth?

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott decides to add some of his family’s superstitions to his family tree to make it more complete—and searches old newspapers to find more information about those superstitions.

I would not be surprised if every family that ever lived had one superstition or another that was “believed in.” Maybe not 100%, but at least to the point that the superstition cropped up each time the subject was broached. For instance, when my wife was well overdue with our first child, she was told: “Eat Chinese takeout food and your labor will start.” I also well remember my grandmother’s constant admonition to “Find a pin and pick it up and all the day you’ll have good luck,” and her commandment “Sing at the dinner table and you’ll marry a drunkard.”

My family folklore included many superstitions and my wife’s family added a few more that I was not familiar with, so I thought to make my family tree even more interesting and complete, I’d look into a couple of the superstitions that were amongst the strongest in our families. So off I went to GenealogyBank.com to see what I could discover and add to our family tree.

Fact or Myth? Snakes Don’t Die until Sundown

First up was a superstition that still haunts me to this day. It is that a snake does not die until sundown. Actually, the way it was related to me by my father was this: “The only way to kill a snake is to cut off its head and then leave it be, since it will not die until sundown.” Well, let me tell you, that was more than enough to instill a fear of snakes that exists in me to this very day, which you can see in this photo.

photo of Scott Phillips holding a large snake in the Amazon rainforest of Brazil

Photo: Scott Phillips and his uncomfortable “close encounter” with a large snake in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. Credit: from the author’s collection.

My father’s “wisdom” about snakes was imparted to me frequently back in the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I found this 1906 Pennsylvania newspaper article that addressed my dad’s snake superstition.

Killing Lies about Snakes, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 25 November 1906

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 25 November 1906, page 13

In this old newspaper article a zoologist debunks many of the myths regarding snakes, and there in the list at #12 is this: “It isn’t true that when snakes are killed their tails do not die until the sun goes down or until it thunders.” Good grief! If I had ever heard that “thunder” part I might still be in my old backyard waiting!

Open the Doors & Windows before Midnight on New Year’s Eve

I then recalled the first New Year’s Eve I celebrated when I was dating my future wife. Just before the stroke of midnight she began going around my parents’ home opening the windows and doors—during a Minnesota winter! As we all stood there shivering, watching our breath indoors, she explained her superstition that in order to have a good New Year, you needed to let the old air, spirits, year, etc., out and the new year in.

I married her anyway and then, 38 years later, I found this 1954 Washington newspaper article that gives instructions for doing exactly this. It was interesting for me to learn that my Italian wife had evidently picked up a Danish superstition, which we still follow.

notice about midnight superstitions, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 19 December 1954

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 19 December 1954, page 95

No Hats on the Bed or Chair!

Next up, I took on another one of my wife’s oft-cited superstitions from her Italian family. I can still hear my wife’s grandparents saying “Don’t ever put your hat on a bed or a chair!” While there were some strong rules in my home about never, ever wearing a hat in the house, I was not aware of anything like this Italian hat superstition that it is bad luck to lay your hat on a bed or chair. Then I found this 1938 Nebraska newspaper article, in which the columnist not only discusses this mysterious hat superstition—he also explains how he and his family still don’t abide seeing any hats on a bed.

notice about superstitions, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 22 May 1938

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 22 May 1938, page 39

Bury a Statue of Saint Joseph to Sell Your Home

Then I laughed out loud at myself as I came across an article in a 1991 Alabama newspaper. It verified that I am as “guilty” of following superstitions as anyone else!

notice about a superstition involving real estate and St. Joseph, Mobile Register newspaper article 7 April 1991

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 7 April 1991, page 18

You see, just as this newspaper article explains, my wife and I have always buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard every time we were in the process of selling a home. I’ll just add here that with my wife being an architect/designer, this burial ritual happened fairly often! It did my heart good to see that this tradition started, according to this article, “hundreds of years ago in Europe.” I take issue with the company selling these St. Joseph statue kits, though! While they do get the part right about burying him on his head and facing the street, he must be buried in a piece of linen from your house!

After reading the “error” in this newspaper’s account of a superstition that I personally follow, I became all the more resolved to add our folklore and superstitions to my family tree. Someone has to be sure everyone gets it “right” in the future!

What kinds of superstitions have been handed down in your family? Post a comment and let me know about your traditions and rituals rooted in superstition. I’d love to learn more about your family’s folklore!