Photo Detective: Grandmother Mix-up
5/3/2013
Which grandmother is in this old family photograph? Our expert offers tips for learning the answer.

This week's photograph came from Joan Lawler of England. In her family collection is this picture of an elderly woman she knows is one of her grandmothers: Mary Ann Spellman or Mary Ann Grime.

Lawler hopes that by dating the woman's clothing and comparing this photo to others, she can correctly identify which grandmother she's looking at.

This photograph focuses on the head and shoulders of a woman wearing an elaborately decorated hat. The ostrich feathers date the hat to circa 1900.

Her suit has slightly puffed sleeves, the last vestige of the full leg-o-mutton sleeves of the 1890s. This detail at the shoulder seam reinforces the date. The woman completed her outfit with a large ribbon tied at the neck.

Joan Lawler's two grandmothers share similar life dates:

  • Mary Ann Spellman was born in Dublin about 1834, and died March 13, 1900, in Rhodes, Manchester, England.
  • Mary Ann Grime was born circa 1845 and died sometime after 1881. Lawler is still trying to locate a death date.

To help with the identification, Lawler provided a photo of Ada Booth, daughter of Mrs. Spellman.

Identifying two photographs solely on physical characteristics is difficult even when you're looking at images of the same person taken at different times in her life.  Comparing those elements across generations is even more complicated. A person's facial characteristics change with age and illness, and a second generation introduces additional features.

These two women do seem to share several common facial features. The shape and size of the nose and mouth are similar, as is the lower ear. The two women resemble each other, but positive identification is challenging.
 
If the first image shows Mary Ann Spellman, she would have been approximately 66 years old when it was taken. That age is consistent with the appearance of the woman in the photo.

The most obvious clue to identity would be discovery of a death date for Mary Ann Grime prior to 1900. This would clearly establish that the portrait shows Mary Ann Spellman. So Lawler's continuing search for Grandmother Grime's death date holds the key.

Find out how to identify your family's old mystery photographs in these books by Maureen A. Taylor:
 
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