Photo Corner: Fiddler Mystery

Wow, I’m absolutely thrilled with all the photos that have been submitted, with more coming in every day. Since we can only fit a couple pictures in the Ancestry Weekly Journal each week, I thought it would be cool to start a photo corner on the blog, where we can add them more often. Here’s one I received today, with a request for help. It presents a good opportunity to don that detective hat and help try to pin down a date for this photograph. Here’s the message I received:Fiddle picture from Paul Reeves

Can anyone help me date this photograph by photo quality, clothing, etc.? I found it in my father’s possessions after both he and my mother died. My great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather both owned fiddles, according to estate records, and I’m not sure which ancestor it is. The first died in 1897, the other in 1850.

Paul Reeves

16 thoughts on “Photo Corner: Fiddler Mystery

  1. would like to see you go back to the original floormat don’t really care much for this one. got more info. from other one . this one is to hard to figure out and get info. from. sorry for this message but telling you the truth . DONT’T CARE FOR IT AT ALL .

  2. If is it one of the grand-father’s mentioned, it is more likely the one who died in 1897. From what I have read very few photographs were taken before 1850. 1860s on is much more likely with tintypes being invented. First find out what kind of photograph the original is. I doublechecked the internet and the tintype was introduced in 1853, the Daguerreotype was introduced in 1837 and Carte-de-visite were also around the 1850s. I didn’t see anything commonplace from the 1840s.

  3. To Paul,
    I don’t think that it was your Great great great grandfather as photography wasn’t around until the Civil War in the 1860’s. My best guess and it is just a guess is that the photo was taken in the 1880’s.
    Have you got any older relatives who might help you figure out who is in the picture?
    Good luck in finding out who they are!
    From, Elizabeth

  4. I am in total agreement with comment #1. I don’t care for this format either.

  5. I asked my daughter who has studied fashion history. Here is her response:

    Unfortunately, men’s clothing doesn’t change as fast as women’s, the
    quality/clarity of the picture is not what one would hope for, and I’m not
    as good at men’s styles, either. Without going into some major research,
    my estimate puts it in the Romantic style (1850’s-1900’s) and likely the
    middle part (1880’s-1890’s).

  6. More from my daughter:
    Looking at the hair and mustaches, the style of the house in the background (high-pitched roof, no porch, nothing else nearby–including the subjects of the photo), and the casual nature of the clothing (man on the right is not wearing tie or collar) it’s probably taken in the midwest or west, before the closing of the “frontier” (1894-ish). (The style–clothes and composition–reminds of pictures of Jesse James and Billy the Kid.)
    Combine that with the fact that the picture’s on paper and not metal or
    glass and that puts you between 1885 and 1893.

  7. The only suggestion I can come up with is this: try to use the fiddle and the chair to date the picture.
    It may be hard to do as the quality of the picture is fairly poor, but someone might be able to at least give you an idea of a date range.
    By my looking at the picture, I see that the fiddle case seems to be made out of a decent quality leather, it has wear at the front of the case where it seems to have been opened with one hand many times.

    As for comments 1, 4, and 7, give it some time, they just started this format and it will take a little getting used to, but it may turn out to be an even better format than the last one.
    but then that is just my opinion. 🙂

  8. Picture from Paul Reeves
    My grand father died July 1912 (Newton County, Missouri, USA. The clothing your two ancestors are wearing is similar to what my grandfather is wearing in seven or 3eight pictures over a span of about 5 years. Also, the pose is quite similar. Hopes this helps.

  9. Hi,

    I run the website – part of our website has to do with dating old photos. I help people date their photos all the time, and offer weekly photoquizzes to help people learn what clues to look for. I’ve written a book partly on the subject called Forensic Genealogy, and have written articles on dating photos for the most well-known genealogy magazines.

    There is some information that you have not posted that would be immensely helpful in dating your photo. For one thing, what is the original size? This is important because the larger the photo, the later in the 1800s it was taken. If you write to me at and tell me the size, I will give you more details. Also, if you have a pair of calipers, you can measure the thickness of the card stock it is printed on. The thicker the paper it was printed on, the later in the century the picture was taken.

    I assume the picture is on paper – tintypes geneally have a milky gray look to them, and are of low contrast. This looks like an albumen print, thanks to the overall yellow tone of the picture. If you look at it closely, you might find that the surface is covered with small cracks – this is because the albumen used as a binder in the emulsion comes from egg whites. As the emulsion dries over the decades, the surface becomes brittle and cracks.

    My gut feeling is that the picture was taken in the 1870s to 1880s. For one thing, it is a picture of a group of people, and they all looked somewhat relaxed. Earlier photographs were generally of a single person, with a rigid pose staring into the camera. In later photographs, towards the end of the century, the subjects were even a little more relaxed than in yours, and the backgrounds, backdrops and props were more sophisticated than they are here.

    I don’t think that clothing is necessarily the best clue to help you date a photo. As someone stated above, men’s fashions tend to change too slowly, and women’s have too many variations. Clothing can indeed be useful, but I don’t believe in it as a religion. Sometimes it has been the critical factor for me in dating a picture and sometimes it has been more of a distraction. It’s too bad that that is the first thing that is often brought up about a picture. There are so many other wonderful hints that are often overlooked as a result.

    Everyone is free to write me and send me their old photos. I’ll be glad to have a look at them.

    Colleen Fitzpatrick


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