Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sepia Saturday: Dating a Photo

Courtesy Jack Cavanaugh - Kent, WA
This is a Real Photo postcard of the Gordon home in Sidney, Iowa taken around the turn of the last century by "J.F. Lewis of Sidney, Iowa". According to various issues of the Fremont County Herald, Mr. Lewis opened a photography studio in Riverton, Fremont County in 1889 and ran his business from there until his studio burned down. He then moved to Sidney, Fremont County where he was again eventually burned out, moving West in 1917. I haven't yet been able to find the exact date that this move to Sidney happened, so it is difficult to date the photo from the photographer alone. Fortunately, I do have some other information from the back of the photo that should help to date it. The home is identified as that of Sadie Gordon, my great grandmother Millie Travis Proctor's sister. From other photos I recognize Sadie (Sarah Eveline Travis) as the woman standing on our left, so the man sitting next to her is most certainly her husband Andrew Marion Gordon. They married in 1893, so that narrows the date to after that year. A close-up of the photo gives me more clues. Although the three people on our right are unidentified, I have a pretty good idea of who, at least, two of them are. Sadie's parents were my 2nd great grandparents, Abraham and Ruth (Stolebarger) Travis. I own one photo of each (below).

From comparing these to the postcard, I am pretty confident that the elderly man and woman are Abraham and Ruth. Since Ruth died in June 1901, that further narrows the date to between 1893 and 1901. The photo that I have of Ruth was taken in 1893, so the postcard must be a few years later since she looks substantially older. It is pretty exciting to me that I have most likely discovered another photo of my great great grandparents!

I'm not sure about the younger woman standing on our right, but it is possible that she is my great grandmother Millie. She married my great grandfather Daniel Proctor in Oct 1900. Prior to that date, she was living with her parents in Sidney. The body, stance and arm look very much like hers from later photos that I have, but the face doesn't look quite like her wedding photo. I would conclude that it was another of the Travis sisters, but I have seen photos and it definitely isn't them. Below is a direct comparison of the young woman in the postcard versus Millie in a full length photo from later years and a close-up from her wedding photo in 1900. Could it be her? Looking at it like this, I think it just might be!

From all of this, I think I can safely conclude that the photo was taken no earlier than about 1897 and no later than June 1901. If that is Millie in the photo, that further narrows the time frame to before Oct 1900. The Gordons lived at 21 Clay St, Sidney Town, Iowa in the 1900 Federal Census, so I can further conclude that this photo was likely taken at that address.
Pretty neat what you can do with a little research!

For more great posts visit my friends at Sepia Saturday.


  1. Very cool detective work! I agree that, side by side, it appears to be Millie.

  2. after reading your post I went to google maps street view to see if I could find this house. I think I did. It is on the corner of Clay St. and Ohio St. There is a screened porch now but the corner entrance is still there. If you google Ohio & Clay St, Sidney Town, Iowa It will show you the house.

  3. That house is so interesting with it's door placed on the corner. I don't think I've ever seen another like it.

  4. Cool - so, how did you run across this postcard?

  5. Kristin - I hadn't even thought of that! How cool, thank you!
    Leah - Thanks for the input!
    Barbara - I hadn't noticed that. Thanks!
    Sean - As I explained in an earlier post, I took my mom to visit her relatives in Washington last Spring. Her cousin allowed me to scan his mother's family photo albums. This was one of the photos in there.

    Thanks for visiting!!!

  6. This is so interesting, I have learnt so much on how to date a photo. Little by little you have been able to narrow the date down to a very small window of time.
    I think you are right in who you say they are after looking very closely at these photos. What wonderful photos to have of your family.

  7. Marilyn - Thanks for commenting! There is so much more that you can do to date a photo if you use the clothes and hairstyles. I didn't need to in this case, but it can really help if you don't have other clues.

  8. I wanted you to know that I've enjoyed your blog enormously and have shared the Ancestor Approved award with you. Thanks for such great reads!

  9. Great detective work, CeCe. In the first photo, I think Abraham looks like Burt Lancaster, don't you? I think the house with the door on the corner is quite charming. I would like to go inside.

  10. Me too, Nancy. Thanks to Kristin discovering the house is still standing, I have hopes to do just that- when I can get out to Iowa! Thanks for commenting. I really appreciate the feedback.

  11. your skills always amaze me!!
    great find for you.
    if you do go to IOWA,
    take a pic and post it so we can compare.

  12. Thanks for the interesting post. Were you able to take a scan of the backside of the postcard also? Real Photo postcards had markings on them (around the stamp box, where the postage stamp would go. This can help narrow down the date of the postcard. More info here: