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May 12, 2013

‘Forensic Genealogy’ in spotlight during St. Joseph County Genealogical Society meeting

Dona Billey-Weiler, education director of the Cass County Council on Aging, gave a presentation on using forensic techniques to identify people in family photographs on Saturday (May 11) at a meeting of the St. Joseph County Genealogical Society (SJCGS) at Constantine Township Library.

A photo of a turn of the century “wedding party” at the Billey-Weiler presentation was used to illustrate appearances can be deceiving. The people in this photo are actually all women, and the photo is of a troupe of actors.

She said 90 per cent of the time nothing is written on the back of a photo, but there are clues to help with identification.  “There is so much to learn from a photograph. The background can tell the story of the photo. There is a lot more than meets the eye, but you have to look for it,” she said. “Forgo the ordinary. Look for specifics. You want to know when, where, and why the photo was taken for clues.”

Dona Billey-Weiler, education director of the Cass County Council on Aging, gave a presentation on using forensic techniques to identify people in family photographs on May 11 at a meeting of the St. Joseph County Genealogical Society at Constantine Township Library.

 

Until 1900, photos were taken at studios, and the clothing people wore was supplied by the photographer.  “You cannot accurately date a photo by the clothing styles, or hairstyles except in rare cases. People kept clothes a very long time, and clothes go out of style, come back in style. Men’s styles hardly ever change.”

“Why didn’t people smile? Bad hygiene (teeth) and they had to sit for long periods of time,” she said.  After 1900, photos were taken in the home.  “A rule of thumb in dating a photo from around the turn of the 20th century is that if it was taken at home instead of at a studio, it was probably taken after the first Kodak Brownie camera came on the market in 1900.”

Identifying several popular photographic processes can help date a photo.  “Daguerreotypes lasted until 1860. Ambrotypes were popular from1850-1862 and tintypes were used from 1853-1880 and later, until the 1900’s,” she said.  “In the Civil War, tintypes became popular again because soldiers could send them through the mail without fear of breaking them. Photos were on large sheets of tin, and the photographer used a pair of tin snips to cut them apart.”

Billey-Weiler said you can research calendars, posters and other items in a photo to help identify when it was taken.

Information from the lecture was based on the work of forensic genealogist Colleen Fitzpatrick, PhD. For more information go to http://www.forensicgenealogy.info/aboutus.html

In other club business:

  • SJCGS member Kathy Brundige was commended for being named “Historian of the Year” by the St. Joseph County Historical Society (SJCHS) in Centreville, for her work preserving the history of one room school houses in St. Joseph County. The award was presented to Brundige on April 21 by SJCHS president Martha Starmann.  Brundige collected photograph, attendance sheets, programs and books on schools in 16 townships in the county for three years. The information will be available at the SJCHS. For more information call (269) 483-7122 or go to http://hstarmann.wix.com/sjchs#!about
  • Brundige reported on two ongoing projects. One is the relocation of Worden School on Hackman Road in Burr Oak Township. The suggested new location is an area across from Burr Oak Schools. The second project is work on a model of a one room schoolroom upstairs at the Klesner Museum in Centreville. Brundige said both areas need items appropriate to a turn of the century schoolhouse, such a desks. To make a donation, call (269) 432-9520.

At the meeting’s conclusion, refreshments were served by Jane Brooks. Guests at the meeting were Maria Rutland, Karen Goatley and Greg Spetz. For more information on the SJCGS call (269)483-9593.

Source:  Story and photo contributed by Angie Birdsall.

Editor’s Note:  This story was expanded at 4:58 p.m. 5-13-13 by adding the small photograph.






One Comment


  1. A. Birdsall

    I wish to add to two comments made by Ms. Billey-Weiler.
    “There are a number of reasons people in old photographs didn’t smile, a couple of which I mentioned. A lot of it also had to do with how long it took for the picture to be taken (for the shutter to open/stay open/close). Attention to oral hygiene wasn’t what it is today and not as affordable either, which may be part of reasons why people were less likely to smile.”
    “Some people could afford to shop and wear their own clothing for a studio photo; more people did borrow clothing the photographer kept on hand.”



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