I have been interested for a long time in vintage pictures of African-American families, whether they are related to me or not. There’s just something about seeing a picture of someone who we know mostly through the census and vital and the other sources in genealogy.
DuBois understood the power of images when he assembled a collection of simple photographs of turn of the century African Americans for display at the 1900 Paris Exposition.
Researching historical photographs has given me just another tangible way of “getting to know” my ancestors.
African-American Photo Collections
There are beautiful historical pictures of African-Americans at numerous archives and colleges and libraries. Emory University and Virginia Commonwealth are collections that come to mind.
Cornell University just digitized an amazing collection of African-American photographs recently. One of my all-time favorite collections is the Missouri State Archives digital database of 19th Century African-Americans.
You can also use Flickr and Pinterest to find large collections of historical pictures of African-Americans (I have collections for each decade in Pinterest). But be careful–if you’re anything like me, it’s an easy way to completely lose an entire day (smile).
Missouri’s website perfectly captures my feelings about these pictures:
By the late nineteenth century African Americans had the opportunity to participate in the phenomenon of portrait photography. Despite low earnings as barbers, laborers, cooks, or laundresses, they could afford to buy or sew at least one nice suit or an attractive dress.
Like white Americans, black Americans proudly dressed in their best clothes and posed for portraits. At the Missouri State Archives, one can find examples of how African Americans saw themselves a generation after slavery – as dignified, proud, hard working, and self-sufficient members of their communities.
Dignified and proud. Yes!
Dating Photographs: Victorian Era
In this post, I want to suggest several reference websites and other tools works available for dating your photographs. Knowing these techniques can help when we inherit unknown pictures.
I’m going to walk through some of my family pictures and discuss the clues that provided insight into the date of the picture. As a sidenote, I was fascinated by how closely rural African-Americans followed the fashion dictates of the times. Almost everyone had at least one nice dress or suit.
The Victorian Era (named for Queen Victoria) lasted from about the late 1830s to about 1900, but each decade has its own unique style. My earliest pictures dates from the 1870s, so I’ll start there.
My ancestor Nannie Barnes, from Hardin County, TN, clearly liked to take pictures. Born in 1864, Nannie’s picture below can be dated to the late 1870s, (very early 1880s at the latest) by the slightly wide sleeves, scarf, and fitted bodice that cuts just over her hips.
She would have been less than 20 years old.
We can’t see her sleeves very well, but they don’t look very fitted. It may even be the same jacket as above, just “gussied” up a bit.
The photo both above and below are tintypes, a popular format that really made photography available at low enough prices for everyone.
Late Twentieth Century
Below is a photo of Thomas Copelin and his wife Sarah of Montgomery County, Maryland. Her style of dress was very common in the early-mid 1880s and easy to spot.
It had a fitted short bodice with a gathered skirt and ruffles at the neck and end of the sleeves.
Sarah was around the age of 30. If we could see the back of her skirt, that would tell us a lot as the size and placemen of the bustle changed over the years dramatically. But I can tell she is wearing a bustle.
In the earlier years in the 1890s—1891-1893—women wore dresses with a tall stiff point at the very top of the sleeves. Seeing that stiff point is your clue to the timeframe.
The mid-late 1890s bought a strange and new phenomenon: the “leg-o-mutton” sleeve. It’s easy to spot because its so huge.
Here is my cousin Mamie Prather of Montgomery Co., Maryland with the famous sleeves:
Below are two Bradley cousins in Tennessee. The big mutton sleeves are just visible.
This is one of those charcoal prints many people may have in their collections:
Cousin Nannie wouldn’t be left out of the latest craze. She took the mid-late 1890s picture below with her daughter Minnie and her son Ulie.
Ulie was born in 1883, so he probably was between 10-12 years old. Check out those fancy collars!
The Edwardian Era
The turn of the century brought about the Edwardian Era. The 1900s was marked by puffy blouses and tiny waists. The bustle was finally gone. Extremely tight corsets made women’s bodies look like the letter S (called “pigeon breast” for good reason).
The Gibson Girl was the look and it included lots of ruffles and embellishments and huge “cartwheel” hats.
Another hallmark of the era was the Shirtwaist, a (usually) white shirt worn with a skirt. Everyone had a shirtwaist blouse. Women wore them beginning in the 1880s through the 1910s with slight variation.
(One of the greatest tragedies of the century was when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned down in New York. Over 140 young women perished.)
In the photo below, even as cousin Nannie aged, she was still stylish, honey. She was wearing a shirtwaist with a skirt.
My Maryland cousin Maria Prather illustrates the Edwardian Era look perfectly in the picture below.
Note the “pooch” in the front of her shirt, and how the top of her figure seems to lean forward. And that’s a cartwheel hat, though tame by the standards of the time.
This is ca. 1905-10. The skirt is more A-line. And Of course she is wearing a shirtwaist blouse.
Her sister and my great-grandmother Beatrice posed below in about the same timeframe, 1905-1910.
Note the “pooch” in her dark shirt, the lack of drama on the sleeves and a simple skirt with no bustle in the back. It is very similar to her sister’s outfit above, except for the color. They still wanted to emphasize tiny waists.
Men and Children
Not to be outdone, brothers Eugene and Darius Prather took their own picture to show that the fellas were not slacking;).
Let’s not leave out the kids. Look at this adorable picture of my Cousins Culous and Marshall Hayes of Tennessee.
Below is my ancestor Louisa Barnes Holt who was Nannie’s sister. She wears the popular shirt of the times–ca. 1910.
It is a more simple and conservative look but the same “poofy” blouse with a high collar. I know I’m making up a lot of words here, but I think you can follow along;)
Aunt Idella Was FLY
I have saved my favorite two pictures for last. Another Prather sibling. Aunt Idella. Honeychile. This picture illustrates the change of style right around 1910.
Idella wore a very long bodice, which matches the skirt, a fur wrap fur and a large cartwheel hat. The hats would reach epic proportion during this decade.
To learn more about photograph types and how to date historic pictures, I really like the website Phototree; it has hundreds of pictures for comparison and other resources.
The author keeps the videos funny and full of really interesting information about clothing history. I’m such a geek.
The University of Vermont also has nice fashion history pages by decade, as does the Vintage Fashion Guild. The University of Georgia’s History Clothing Collection is worth a look. I also *loved* Maureen Taylor’s book, Family Photo Detective.
There’s also a neat little site called Old Photographs of African-Americans-Unknown Faces. The site seeks to match unknown picture up with their descendants. Take a look–maybe you will get lucky!
Readers, tell me in the comments about your favorite historical photos–include a link if you have it online. Do you have any unknown pictures who you wish you could identify?
How have photographs enriched the experience of researching your roots? I hope you had as much fun reading this post as I had writing it. The funny thing–I have several more pictures of Nannie, fashionable as ever!!
I am an engineer by day, but my true passion lies in genealogy. I have been a researcher, writer, lecturer and teacher for over twenty years. This blog is where I share family history methods, resources, tips and advice, with an emphasis on slave research, slavery and its aftermath. This lifelong quest has helped me to better know my family’s past. I’ve taken back– reclaimed– some of that lost memory, especially that of my enslaved ancestors. I hope you’ll sign up to receive my posts—if you do, you’ll get a free PDF with some of my favorite tips! And please do share posts that interest you.