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Old Blue Eyes in a Family Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

This man’s pale blue eyes stand out in this portrait.

Jay Kruizenga submitted the photo with an inquiry about a date for the picture. He’s hopeful it was taken circa 1857, making James Pennington (1828-1903) a potential ID for this man. Pennington would be 29 years old in 1857.

This is a typical mid-19th century portrait. It doesn’t show the background; the focus is on the sitter and what he’s wearing.

Nineteenth-century fashion trends originated in Paris and spread from there. In the United States, our ancestors wore Americanized French fashion. Here’s a fashion plate from an 1857 issue of Journal des Merchants Tailleurs:

A well-dressed man wore a jacket, vest and tie, just like the men in this illustration and the man in the photo.

A few fashion details visible in Kruizenga’s photo help date the portrait:

  • He wears his hair combed back with oil.
  • His necktie is a wide silk stock, wrapped under his collar and tied. By 1857, another type of tie also was available—a wide, horizontal looking bow tie.
  • In the 1850s, patterned vests were common. A little bit of patterned fabric shows in this closeup.
  • Often, one of the key details in a man’s outfit is the width and shape of the jacket lapels. In this case, his lapels are quite wide.

Next week, I’ll examine the types of photos available in the 1850s. It could help confirm the photo’s time frame.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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