Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Expert Q&A :: Interpreting photographs for family history

Another Thursday and another great Expert Q&A sharing session. This week we discussed how to date and interpret photographs and fashion for family history. Thanks again to Margot Riley and Alan Davies from The State Library of NSW for joining us and giving us the benefit of their family history expertise and years of experience! Please find the transcript of the Q&A and useful links. Margot and Alan will be back to help with your interpreting your photos in a future Q&A.

Don't forget our Expert Q&As happen every Thursday night on the Inside History Magazine facebook page.

When: 8:30-9:30pm EST | WA: 6:30-7:30pm WST | SA - NT: 8:00-9:00pm CST | Weekly on a Thursday night

Margot Riley is the SLNSW dress historian and curator of the exhibition, "Flashback: 160 Years of Australian Fashion Photos”. Alan Davies has been the SLNSW curator of photographs since 1989 and is one of Australia's leading photographic experts and co-author of The Mechanical Eye in Australia: Photography 1841-1900.

Top tips from Margot Riley and Alan Davies:
When dating or interpeting a photo, ask yourself:
  • Is it an original photograph or a copy of an earlier image; 
  • what type of photograph is it, ie. cased image behind glass (daguerreotype or ambrotype), paper print, carte de visite, cabinet cards or postcards prints etc; 
  • is there a photographer's name; is it labelled in any way; 
  • do you know who the sitter/s are; do you know why the photo was taken? 
  • If you cannot answer any of these questions then the best method of approximating the date of the image may be to look closely at the clothing of the sitter/s.
All family history researchers should sign up for a SLNSW Library card to can gain access to our wide array of online resources:

SLNSW’s Ask a Librarian Service will also provide advice and guidance to family history researchers:

Take advantage of our family history research guides:

Q. I’m trying to date our family photos - what clues do I look for when dating women’s hairstyles, dresses and hats?
A. Margot. Hair: the length, cut or pinned up, whether is smooth to the head, piled up high, curled tightly or drawn into a puffy knot on the top of the head - all will provide clues. Also, it is interesting that hairstyles may often be more fashionable than the clothing being worn in a photo, ie. it didn’t cost anything to update one’s hairstyles to keep up with the latest trends and a trip to the hairdresser would have been cheaper than new clothes which were an investment that not everyone could always afford.

Clothing: as most photographs will be in black & white the most important factor will be the shape of women’s garments, whether they are fitted to the body or loose, long or short and the number of pieces making up the outfit – as a rule the more complicated the outfit, the more likely it is to date from the 19th rather than the 20th century.

Hats: again the shape and size of the hat is very important - whether it is tied on with a bow or secured with hat pins and how much of the hair is visible – and again people would often re-trim or buy a new hat to dress up an old outfit.
Q [a]. Can I apply the same rules to men...
A. Margot [31/08/12]. Men’s fashions change much more slowly than women’s and, in general, there is less room for variation in menswear styles, ie. men have been wearing three-piece business suits since the middle of the 19th century though photos do more often depict men in uniforms or other occupational dress and sporting attire. With experience, it is possible to detect subtle date changes through fashions in tie, collar and hat types as well as in head and facial hair styles.

Q. I have the name of photography studio - how do I find out more about the studio?
A. Margot.  [31/08/12]
  • 19th to E 20th Century: Trade Directories: Sands & others available in some local libraries and online through family history sites such as:
  • 20th Century: Telephone books: also available through local and state libraries
  • TROVE: photographers often advertised in the newspapers and this can supply dates & locations that may or may not fit in with other information known about an image. 
  • References books: beyond Alan Davies' The Mechanical Eye and Eye for Photography the following is especially useful:
  • Sandy Barrie (2002) Australians behind the camera: directory of early Australian photographers, 1841 to 1945

Transcript of Expert Q&A - how to date and interpret photographs and fashion for family history:

Welcome everyone, thanks for joining us tonight. The rules are simple. Try to keep your questions concise and focused on the tonight’s topic, interpreting photographs and fashion for family history. That will help Margot and Alan to answer as many as possible in the hour that we have.

Q. Won't be around at, dropping this one in.....Is there a reference book that identifies uniforms in Australia? I've got, somewhere, a photo of an ancestor in uniform that looks militarish...but doesn't fit any uniforms I can find, so I've started to think it was band, or salvation army or something like that related. Where should I start looking?.
A. Linda: ‎@Julie Can I suggest one option for Julie? If you post the photograph to somewhere such as Flickr, and join and post the URL to AUS-MILITARY mailing list at Rootsweb, you have access to a phenomenal range of uniform experts.
 A. Margot. @Julie. There is no definitive reference for Australian military or other uniforms - many British ones were worn here anyway - so Linda's suggestion is a good one - give it a go !!

Q. We have a photo of a very well dressed female ancestor wearing a long chain with a Compass & Square Masonic emblem. She is also holding what appears to be an open notepad. Any ideas as to the symbolism of the jewellery please?
A. Margot. @Kathy. It's very hard to say without seeing the image - portraits with the subject holding an open book were intended to imply that the person was educated - if it is a masonic chain it may have belonged to a close male family member.
A. Janelle [03.09.12]. Kathy Eastman, there were a few women's lodges around, but they weren't quite as initiated as the men were into their lodges. The square and compass refer to the Masonic idea that "God" (or whichever name you want to call it: higher being, etc) is known to them as the Great Architect Of The Universe. The square and compass were used by architects. Sydney's Grand Lodge might be able to help you.

Q. Hi Margot and Alan. At Stratford Historical Museum we have a men's vest where a date in 1856 and a place in America has been written in ink inside at the back of the neck. We strongly suspect it 
is his wedding date - was it common to date clothing worn at a special date such as this?
Q. [a] Just put the photos of vest and inscription up at Flickr

A. Margot. @Linda. I would think that it is more probable that the date and place were added by descendants rather than the wearer. Looking at the incription it does seems to be contemporary with the garment so I think you might have very rare item of dated men's wear.
A. Linda. Thank you - I am still unsure if it is a date and place of purchase that coincided with his wedding (well, men bought new clothes, too), or a way of making sure he didn't forget his wedding anniversary!
A. Margot. @Linda. I guess we'll never know - but it is so very rare to have dated men's wear that you should be very pleased to have this item in your collection.

Q. From Helen Stagg. This photo was in a very old album I was given from an elderly relative which contained only 'close family' shots. But the fact that makes me (and any genealogist in the same situation) cry is that most of them are unlabeled. Like this one. The families connected are Smith and O'mealley many of whom were living in Broken Hill New South Wales from about 1900 after living in South Australia around Burra, Farrell's Flat. Even a date would be helpful I guess.
A. Margot. Helen Stagg. Alan and I have both looked at your picture and based on the clothing it appears to be from about 1890. As the image has the photographer's name Scott Barry we looked this up in Sandy Barrie's great book 'Australians behind the camera' and found that Walter Scott-Barry was at 146 Rundle Street Adelaide from 1890 to 1896.

Q. What about particular uniforms non military...I have access to a photo of my great great grandfather who was in the Commonwealth of Druids (that is written pre printing on the photo) are there records that depict what the outfits were like the Masons.
A. Margot. @Chez. Alan says he doesn't know any book on this subject but he will direct your query onto an expert on Australian Masonic and Friendly Society regalia, okay.
A. Chez. Thanks Margot & Alan muchly appreciated....Like the forresters the druids in Australia dont seem to have many historical records
A. Margot [31.08.12]. Alan recommends that Chez makes contact with: Dr Bob James, Centre for Fraternal Studies:

Q. I have photos taken in Huddersfield in England, they have first names but that is it, where can I find the photographer? I have tried Google but no luck there? is there an English version of Mechanical Eye?
A. Jane. @Carmel Reynen. Have you tried UK Historical Directories? The site has digitised versions of 51 directories for Yorkshire (and heaps for other counties). You might find the photographer listed in one of those.
A. IHM. @Carmel. You can also use for photographers of Great Britain & Ireland between 1840 - 1940.
A. Margot. @Camel. Alan says the best reference for English studios is 'Directory of English Photographers 1840-1940' by Sandy Barrie. This is a rare, self-published book but can be found in some libraries including the State Library of NSW.
A. Carmel. Thank you I have just spent £9 for information on my photographers. it better be good LOL. Maybe I can put some dates on Frank, Tom Emily and Louisa, now to find a surname for them all!

Q. Alan, I have glass photo plates belonging to my great grandfather William Garrett who practised in Bathurst in 1860s. Would it still be possible to get a print from these?
A. Margot. @Janne. Alan says quickest and cheapest way to get images off glass negatives is to copy them on a light box using a digital camera, download and reverse the negative on your computer. If this sounds too difficult find a friendly keen amateur photographer..

Q. from Janelle Elisabeth. This is one of our mystery wedding photographs of the Brunton family. We are sure that the Father of the bride is William Henry Brunton (1870-1937) and the bridesmaid is my Grandmother, Phyllis Irene Brunton Carley (1908-1996) but we are unsure of the rest of the wedding party or when the wedding took place. The family was living in Balmain NSW.
A. Margot. @Janelle. Alan and I recognised the studio where this image was taken. Click here for more. This link will take you to the Library's collection of Sidney Riley Studio negatives taken in the Balmain Rozelle area in the late 1930s to 1940s. By the look of the bride's gown her choice has been influenced by the Southeast Asian styles being designed by Parisian couturier Jeanne Lanvin, c.1935. As you say that the bridemaid's father died in 1937 - we did a BDM search on his children which revealed that Phyllis was his only daughter and that the only son to be married before his father's death was Stanley in 1936 to Violet Thuaux of Balmain.

Q. I love all the fashions in the Allen family albums. What do they tell us about the people in the photos?
A. Margot. Vanessa's question about an image from the Allen Family Albums showing some visiting Italian opera singers taken at the Ostrich Farm at South Head on 27 August 1911:- Call No: PX*D 595/vol.57/ item nos: 4335-4339 (a3289048)

People often talk about there being a time lag between Australian and overseas fashion and this series of images shows that, at times of swift changes in style, this was often the case. These visiting celebrities are dressed at the height of European fashion which had been revolutionised in 1908 under the influence of the Ballets Russes. Captioned:

"Ethel and I gave a lunch at Paris House to-day at which the following were present. Count and Countess de Cisneros, M. and Mme Wayda, Mlle. Ranzenburg, Signor Zani, Signor Scandiana, also Mr and Mrs Kelly, Miss Rose Johnson, Mildred Lamb, Hastings and Joyce [Allen]....After lunch we drove to South Head to the Ostrich farm.'Item No. 4335: 'This picture shows Mlle. Ranzenburg trying to tame an ostrich.'

On one of the following pages there is also a full page print which allows us to compare the dress of the Allen family women and their friends to those of the visiting celebrities. Item No: 4343 (a3289050): 'At Glenyauah [Double Bay], Sunday 27 August 1911'

In this image we can clearly see that the Australian women are still tightly corseted to achieve the classic Edwardian hourglass silhouette accessorised by large, elegant feather-trimmed hats with sweeping wide-brims. The European women who are posed at either end & at the centre of the group (and are also happy to be photographed with cigarettes in their hands) display the tubular, high-waisted silhouette produced by the harem-inspired designs of Ballet Russe costumier & Parisian couturier Paul Poiret and worn with small, round narrow-brimmed hats.

Comment: IHM. Time flies when your technology isn't working! Thanks again to Margot and Alan for joining us tonight! We’ll publish the questions, answers and links from tonight’s session in a blog post this coming week. Visit for free online access to eResources and the library for fantastic free exhibitions like Margot’s “Flashback: 160 Years of Australian Fashion Photos”. We'll have The State Library of New South Wales back again soon. You can find Alan's book, The mechanical eye in Australia : photography 1841-1900, at your local library.

Comment: IHM. We’ll be here again next Thursday, Sep 6 from 8:30 – 9:30pm, with our next expert. Brad Argent will be answering questions on how to to get the best from


Read the previous Expert Q&A transcripts:
[1]  Thursday, July 26 :: How to get the best from Trove Australia
[2]  Thursday, August 16 :: How to get the best from BDM Certificates
[3]  Thursday, August 23 :: Getting the most from NAA
[4]  Thursday, August 30 :: Interpreting photographs for family history
[5]  Thursday, September 6 :: How to get the best from
[6]  Thursday, September 13 :: Using Trove for research
[7]  Thursday, September 20 :: Today's toolkit for the digital historian
[8]  Thursday, September 27 :: Preserving your artefacts with NAA
[9]  Thursday, October 4 :: Studying and doing research at UNE
[10]  Thursday, October 11 :: How to research war graves and Anzac ancestors
[11]  Thursday, October 25 :: What's new at

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