On a recent visit to Arizona to see my dad, he bestowed upon me the greatest gift I could have asked for: his entire collection of family photographs and documents. I have been researching my family tree for over four years now, taking all of those family stories and well known family members I had heard about my entire life, and began putting dates, locations, and other details to each one. Since informally earning the title of family historian, I believe my dad felt comfortable placing them in my care so that I could discover even more about our family. Each photograph is like a little clue, something that brings me closer to the truth and brings life to each ancestor I have researched and spent years finding and learning about. While this particular post focuses on one photograph in that collection, I know as I delve further into the entire collection, the more it will open itself up to me to share new information with you in the future.
While weeding through the hundreds of photographs in the collection I received, I noticed that many could be dated as far back as the late 19th and early 20th century, while the bulk of the collection was from the 1940s-1960s. The oldest image, a tintype of a small child with no discernible location, can easily date anywhere from the 1850s to the turn of the century, making it nearly impossible to identify. It was almost a guarantee there would be more photographs of unknown ancestors like this. Indeed, I have an entire stack simply labeled “unknown” that not a single living family member can identify. I once heard a story about a family friend who was given a similar collection of family photographs and couldn’t recognize a soul. Her solution was to throw everything away, as she felt they had no value in their anonymous state. This story is devastating to any historian, let alone a family tree researcher. So, I set out to prove that I could identify some of my own photographs simply by looking at them closely for ‘clues.’ I started with what I thought was the hardest photograph:
This photograph shows a group of schoolgirls, posing for their class photo with their male teacher. There is a small, almost illegible word on the bottom. On the back there are two words “for grandmother” and a stamp. Not much to go on, especially when you consider how many family members there are on my father’s side alone (hundreds!).
So, how do you identify a single ancestor in a group of unknown people? How do you date a photograph and determine a location? How do you learn more about your ancestor from a single photograph? Using the photograph above, I hope to answer these questions.
I feel I should start with a short biography of my great-great-grandmother, Belle McLannachan, and what I knew about her prior to finding this photograph. As I am sure the name hints, she was Scottish and completely unknown to me before I began my family research. Prior to finding this photograph of schoolgirls, all I knew of Belle was that she was born in Scotland, in a small town outside of Glasgow named Airdrie. I have found census records of her in Scotland prior to her immigrating to America c. 1890. She came to the U.S. when she was 12 years old, became a servant, eventually met my great-great-grandfather in Kansas, and died at the young age of 44. My grandfather, in the many conversations I had with him about family ancestors before he died, never mentioned her.
I often wondered how a 12-year-old girl could be sent to a new country alone, to work for strangers. After analyzing census records from both Scotland and the United States and Belle’s death record from Kansas, my hypothesis is that her father died when she was very young, leaving her mother a widow with two small children. Her mother remarried and had more children in her second marriage. It couldn’t have been easy for her stepfather to raise children that were not his own and provide for them. Eventually, they found a “situation” for her in America, and off she went. Perhaps, due to the fact that along with the Irish, Scots are known to have extensively emigrated throughout history, the prospect of going to a new place halfway across the world was less overwhelming that it seems, even to a 12-year-old.1
The immigrant experience is a well-researched history for Americans. Like most western countries in the mid to late 19th century, Scotland experienced major economic growth due to the Industrial Revolution, especially pertaining to textile production and mining.2 However, immigration still occurred despite this “golden” period.3 One major reason immigration from Scotland to America took place in the 19th century was the fact that Scottish workers were paid considerably lower wages than their English counterparts.4 As T. M. Devine describes, a “worker ‘must work for a mere pittance, to enable his employer to sell his goods abroad at low rates, or there will be no work for him to do, and he will be left to starve.’”5 This was the world that Belle McLannachan was raised in, and most likely a significant reason she was sent to America where there were more positions for immigrants and hopefully higher pay.
Looking at the photograph, there are a few clues that stick out immediately. One of the most obvious ways to date a photograph is to look at the clothing. The schoolgirls are clearly in the Victorian era, with their conservative dresses and somber expressions. However, the Victorian period lasted from 1837 (the year Queen Victoria ascended to the British throne) until 1901 (the year of her death), spanning more than 60 years. To get a clearer date, it’s important to understand the progression of Victorian fashion. Without delving into 60 plus years of Victorian dress, it is key to share that by 1890, the elaborate full dresses that preceded were going out of fashion.6 They were being replaced by straighter lines and higher necklines. Most of the girls in the photo already have the high, conservative necklines that would dominate the end of the Victorian era.
On the reverse side of the photograph, there is a stamp reading:
Pearlmann & Co.
231 New City Road
St. George’s Cross
The stamp is a big clue and could identify the general location of where this photograph of girls was taken. They were from or around Glasgow, Scotland. That immediately pointed to my one Scottish ancestor, Belle McLannachan. However, while it helps to support my theory and that I was heading in the right direction, it does not prove she is actually in the photograph. While doing a little more digging using Google search, I came upon a website dedicated to Glasgow Victorian photographers (the amazing part is that this was a subject important enough to someone to create this digital offering!). Included on the website was a detailed list of photographers that were active in the Glasgow area during the Victorian era and their various locations, marketing changes, and styles. Because of the stamp on the back of my photograph, I already had a lot to go on, but the question was whether the photographer’s name I was looking for would be on that list. Lucky for me, the photographer’s name was included. M. (Maurice, according to some very light research on Ancestry.com) Pearlmann had many locations for his business from 1884 to 1913, but he was only at 231 New City Road from 1886-1891.7 This time frame and the age group of the schoolgirls in the photograph (which looking at their facial features and height, seem to range roughly from 6-13 years old), fit the age of Belle during that time.
I now know that the photograph was taken in or near Glasgow, Scotland within a 5-year period. All of this information fits to when Belle McLannachan was still in Scotland. In fact, if it were taken closer to 1890, it would have been just before she was sent to America. The two personal inscriptions on the front and back tell me a little more about the photograph. The word on the front of the photograph, looks like “Bella,” but I could not be sure of what it said until I placed and dated the photograph. Due to my extensive research, I am now very confident that the word on the front is the name of my great-great-grandmother. With its skewed location slightly to the right, I can also assume that it is located just under the person whose name it bears, Bella, or Belle.
In addition to identifying my great-great-grandmother, there is even more information I can gleam from this photograph. It can be concluded that Belle was educated, at least as a young girl, in a time when this was not common. I can trace her facial features to that of my great-grandmother, and then to myself. I like to imagine that the inscription on the back “to grandmother” is there because she may have given this photograph to her grandmother, who in turn may have given it back to her before she was sent to America to remind her of her home in Scotland. That may be wishful thinking, there is obviously no research to support that assumption, but it makes me feel a little more connected to this brave girl who crossed the Atlantic at 12-years old to start a new life.
This is the only photograph I have of my great-great-grandmother, Belle.
There is so much information a single photograph can give you without knowing anything about the subject, time, or location. It’s the beautiful thing about historical research, how objects can reveal themselves to you if you just give them time. Finding Belle McLannachan in a photograph has brought this obscure ancestor to life for my family. While all of these photographs have survived for more than a century, handed down from generation to generation, some of the people in them and their stories have been lost along the way. Genealogical research and simple deductive reasoning skills have allowed me to rediscover some of those ancestors and understand how important each of their histories are to the American collective memory and my own story.
Lindsey Goodwin is currently the digital learning coordinator at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. She received her M.A. in history from the University of San Diego, with a concentration in public history, where she completed her master’s thesis titled, “Conviction Without Trial: Lynching in Mississippi, A Century of Terror 1865-1965.” Lindsey received her B.A. in history and art history from UCLA. She specializes in topics ranging from British and American history to family genealogy research, as well as museum and public history interpretation. In her free time, Lindsey travels often throughout the U.S. and internationally with her husband to continue her education of history and culture.
- T. M. Devine, To The Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1750-2010 (London: Smithsonian Books, 2011), 125.
- T. M. Devine, To The Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora 1750-2010 (London: Smithsonian Books, 2011), 74-75.
- “Victorian Dress at the V&A.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Accessed May 17, 2016. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-dress-at-v-and-a/.
- “M.Pearlmann & Co., 231 New City Rd., 1885 – 1891.” Glasgow’s Victorian Photographers. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.thelows.madasafish.com/main.htm#mid.