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How to Learn About Working Women in Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Did your ancestral mothers work outside the home either before or after marriage? Despite common misconceptions, many did.

Michael Albrecht sent in series of family photos. In the pile were two very interesting images of a tailor shop in Baltimore, Md. He labeled the images with the name of the tailor: Boleslaw Cwalina.

Now, before you think “what an uncommon name,” try searching for men named Boleslaw in Baltimore. There are a lot of them.

Finding Clues in Your Photos

Look closely at this image. There are clues to be found in the fashion plates hung over the head of the clerk.

The fashions in these plates suggest a date of late 1910s to circa 1920. Those large feathers in the women’s hats and the narrow skirts are significant indicators of the era.

Meanwhile, the second image shows working women sitting around sewing tables.


It’s not very often that you see a picture with an exact date stamped into its surface. This one says “Feb. 15, 1935. Model Coat Makers. Baltimore, Md.”

The women in this photo appear to be making coats for customers to try on, possibly about a decade after the first image was taken.

Use the clues to research

I’m hoping that Michael knows the story behind these two photos. I’d love to know who’s behind the counter in the first one and if any of the women in the second are his relatives working in the family business.

Do you have old photographs that show your female ancestors performing an occupation? Why not follow up on the clues within the photos? To learn more about the occupations of the women in your family, start with these two types of records.

  • Look at the category that states a woman’s work in a census, then see if the name of the company that employed her appears on the same line.
  • City directories sometimes list unmarried working women separately with the place of employment. Married women are generally mentioned in parentheses next to their husbands.
If you’re having trouble identifying the people in your old family photos, your cousins may be able to help. Photo Detective Maureen A. Taylor shares how to find clues in your mysterious family photographs.
Joseph Martin has a great photo, a big group portrait. You guessed the problem: figuring out who’s who. He knows the identity of three of these individuals, but the rest he’s not sure about. Here are four tips you can apply to group portraits in your family collection.1. Estimate…
Dr. William Davis dated this photo in his collection to sometime between 1860 and 1890. It once hung in his parents’ house, but he can’t remember which side of the family it represents. The photo documents the wedding of one of Dr. Davis’ ancestors…

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