3 Clues to Identify the Ancestors in Old Wedding Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

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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, but which one?

If you find yourself wondering the same thing about an old wedding photograph, keep reading. Pictures that depict a bride and groom often contain specific clues to help you figure out more about the image and the individuals.

Wedding photos also can hold the key to missing family information including where the wedding took place, the couple’s religion, and their ethnicity. I have several questions about this image.

Study the clothing
Two young women in my family are currently planning weddings. One stated she’d like to wear her mother’s gown. The other one said the same thing, but in her case, her mother’s gown also was worn by two earlier generations of women, beginning in 1890. Each bride updated the look of the dress, but kept the original bodice.

This is a cautionary tale: Not all brides wore a brand-new dress and veil. Dresses could be re-made and veils were often inherited.

Study all the clothing worn in the picture to make sure that all the facts add up. By the time Dr. Davis wrote to me, he’d already determined that this picture could have been taken in the 1880s. He’s right.

The dress with its center pleats in the skirt, the fitted bodice and the bustle all suggest the 1880s. The man’s close-fitting jacket with narrow collar are from the same period.

I love the bride’s mantilla-style veil and the pearls around her ruff collared neck and her wrist. Lovely! Look closely, you can see her simple shoes.

Their matching white gloves suggest that this was a formal wedding.

Notice that the veil is white, but the dress is a different color. It could be dark ivory, or one of the popular colors in the 1880s—a rust tone or a reddish shade. Many different colors were worn for weddings in that decade. Sometimes newspaper announcements for weddings of prominent community members mentioned details of the bride’s gown.

Look at your family tree
Davis thinks this photo could be William Issac Carrigan and Sarah Ann Hutton, who married Sept. 4, 1884, in Carrollton, Greene County, Ill. He could be right. It all depends on who else in the family married in the early 1880s.

According to the census, Carrigan and Hutton both were born in Illinois.

They posed in an elaborate studio, one with real furniture and a gorgeous painted backdrop. This couple’s attire suggests they have some means. Does this fit what Davis knows about Carrigan and Hutton?

I’m hoping Davis has other wedding suspects on his short list of people married in the 1880s. While it’s possible this picture shows William and Sarah, I’d like to know more about their families’ status in society before saying yes.

Become an expert at tracking down marriage records with this in-depth guide to researching marriage records throughout history.
When you can’t find a marriage record, try these other eight possibilities for discovering more about your ancestor’s nuptials.
Compare photo clues to available records to identify the subjects in an old family picture.