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Quiz: Can You Read the Hidden Clues in this Old Photo?

By Maureen A. Taylor
Black and white photo of an elderly couple in rocking chairs.

Photo clues can tell you more than just when and where a picture was taken, revealing the subjects’ interests and how they lived. This image shows reader Sarah Stout’s third-great-grandparents Elizabeth Josephine McAuley and David Harrison Russell. Compare your photo-sleuthing skills to those of our Photo Detective by answering these questions. Look below for the answers!

Old black and white photo of Elizabeth Josephine McAuley and David H. Russell
Reader Sarah Stout’s third-great-grandparents Elizabeth Josephine McAuley and David Harrison Russell.


1. Did this home have electricity?

a. Yes
b. No
c. Maybe or maybe not

2. True or false? The photographer of this image used a flash.

3. Which item in this room might appear in a probate file’s estate inventory? (Choose all that apply.)

a. the convex framed mirror to the right of the door
b. the poster above the man’s head
c. the wicker rocking chair

4. The floor covering on the right side of this image is:

a. a rug
b. wood parquet
c. linoleum

5. What item of Russell’s clothing is associated with his roots as a frontiersman?

a. his heavy sweater
b. his jeans
c. his collarless work shirt

Maureen A. Taylor has a new uniform mystery to work through, and she’s letting us in on the steps of her investigation. Who could this gentleman be? See if you can help us work through the clues.


Question 1

Answer: c
Thomas Edison invented the first incandescent light bulbs in 1879, and by 1930, most homes in the United States had electric lighting. The oil lamp on the table in the corner (visible behind David Harrison Russell’s head) indicates that this home, located in Ekalaka, Mont., probably didn’t.

Question 2

Answer: True
Starting in the late 1800s, a number of inventors obtained patents for artificial lighting for photography. The centralized lighting on this couple shows that the photographer used “flash” photography, possibly a magnesium light.

Question 3

Answer: a and c
Researching this family’s probate records may uncover a list of household items such as the Colonial revival-style mirror and the sturdy wicker rocker.

Question 4

Answer: c
Created in the mid 1850s from linseed oil, pine rosin and wood powder, durable linoleum flooring was initially available in solid colors. By the early 1880s, it came in a variety of patterns.

Question 5

Answer: b
German immigrant Levi Strauss and Reno, Nev., tailor Jacob Davis patented riveted jeans in 1873. The sturdy trousers were a hit with Western cowboys, lumberjacks and railroad workers.

From the May/June 2015 Family Tree Magazine.