Photo Detective: Q&A
9/26/2009

Mystery photos generate a lot of questions, but sometimes they can provide a few answers, too. Maurla White sent me scans of this photograph, along with four questions. She says the image was handed down through her family, but no one can identify the woman. White thinks it's Maria Schwenk, an immigrant ancestor who was born in Wurttemberg, Germany, in 1808, and migrated to the United States around 1870 when she was in her early 60s. White knows that Schwenk had relatives in Chicago and Missouri, and probably other areas of the United States, as well. Here are her questions:

Is there an approximate date for the photograph?
Absolutely! The stamp on the back dates the picture within a two-year time period. Between Aug. 1, 1864, and Aug. 1, 1866, the US government required photographers to place a tax stamp on the backs of their images. On each stamp, a photographer had to include his name or initials, plus the date of sale. Not everyone complied fully with the law. This picture lacks the specific date, but at least the stamp provides a time frame.

Could it have been taken in Germany at an earlier date and reprinted in Lansing, Mich.?
Photographers (even daguerreotypists) had ways of duplicating images, but this picture doesn't appear to be a copy of an earlier photo. The woman's clothing (close-fitting, front-fastening bodice and full sleeves) and the table prop resemble those in other pictures from the mid-1860s. The picture could be a copy of a photo taken in the 1860s, but the woman isn't old enough to be Maria Schwenk.

Can you tell me about the ethnic origin of the woman in the picture and her approximate age?
Genealogical research is the best way to determine ethnicity. A photographer's imprint from a particular country provides a clue, but support for a person's ethnic heritage is found in documents and, for some groups, through DNA testing. I would guess that the woman was in her 20s or early 30s when this photo was taken. But to be sure, White must look at her family's aging patterns and life experiences. For instance, a seriously ill person tends to look older than his or her chronological age.

I'd be interested in any additional ideas or information you decipher regarding the picture or writing on the back.
Based on the date of the picture and the age of the woman, this is not a portrait of Maria Schwenk. However, there are a few ways to put a name to this woman's face.

I'd start by trying to decipher the caption on the back. Find someone to translate the script by calling the foreign-language department of a nearby college or university.

Since White thinks the image depicts one of her Schwenk ancestors, she could search records for every Michigan Schwenk during that time period. HeritageQuest Online's indexes to the 1860 and 1870 US censuses turned up 83 and 86 Schwenks respectively. Only four of those people lived in Michigan in 1860; one, in 1870 (but none in Lansing where the photograph was taken). White can narrow the identification possibilities for this image by looking at Schwenk women of about the same age. She also can compare places of origin and re-create family relationships based on her genealogical research. Another research lead: Maria Schwenk appears in both censuses, so she must have immigrated before 1870—unless the census references a different Maria Schwenk.

White's fortunate to have this picture. Searching for the woman's identification will help her discover more about her family—one Schwenk relative at a time. The image even could help her research the family back in Germany.

If anyone can read what's written on the back of this photograph, please contact me at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com.

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