News / Ask the photo expert – American ancestor

Ask the photo expert – American ancestor

28 March, 2012

Our photo expert, Jayne Shrimpton, analyses your family photos.

Bev Berney sent us her photo and asked:

‘I would be very interested in your analysis of this photo. It is mounted on a card which reads “Photographed by H. Skinner, Oneida St., Fulton, N.Y.” The card carries a US 2 cent stamp, which my stamp-collector husband tells me dates to 1862-1871.’

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Jayne says:

‘This will be a carte de visite photograph, the earliest type of card-mounted photographic print to be produced by commercial photographers and one which survives in large numbers today. Measuring a standard 2 ½ x 4ins (10 x 6.5cms), this neat visiting-sized photograph print originated in France in the mid-1850s, from where the format quickly spread to other countries. Cartes de visite were produced in the United States from late 1859 onwards and remained a popular style throughout the 19th century.

I am not as familiar with American cartes as with English examples and haven’t previously come across postage stamps on the reverse of any of the US mounts that I have worked on. Stamps, however, can offer useful dating clues and the dates provided by your husband for the use of 2 cent stamps – 1862-71 – broadly fits in with the other evidence here. In particular, the neat, plain style of the photographer’s printed details, centred in the middle of the mount, confirms that this is an early carte, most typical of the 1860s.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

I have been unable to establish complete operational dates for the photographer, H Skinner of Fulton, New York, but a general internet search yields further examples of his work on various random websites. His name also occurs in online histories of Fulton Village, which suggest that he was resident there by 1838, although he would not yet have been operating as a photographer at that date.

Turning to the visual image, we see a man seated in a photographer’s studio. In England, this close-up three-quarter length pose was becoming fashionable by c.1870, although slightly earlier examples do exist and the ornate chair and patterned carpet certainly suggest a date in the 1860s or early 1870s.

Men’s dress can be hard to date very precisely but this gentleman’s appearance is consistent with a date in the 1860s or early 1870s, albeit it a little outmoded by that time. His substantial, dark knee-length frock coat was becoming associated mainly with the business or upper classes and was a rather formal, conservative option. It is worn here with a matching waistcoat and trousers and a bow tie of broadly mid-century type.

His distinctive facial hair represents the early style of beard first worn during the 1850s and that involved the growth of bushy whiskers extending from the sideburns beneath the chin, but with no hair grown around the mouth. This ancestor looks to be aged in his 40s or thereabouts and we can be fairly certain that he lived or worked in Fulton Village, Oswego County, New York, since most people visited a photographer’s studio close to home. Hopefully these clues and the c.1862-71 time frame will enable you to positively identify him.’

Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton

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  • Adrian Bruce

    In fact the stamp is a precise dating device for US photos. The web-site is one of several to record the 1864 Luxury Tax levied from 1 August 1864 to 1 August 1866 “to support the war for the Union”. Photos were taxed at different rates – a 2 cent stamp was used on a photo costing less than 25 cents.


    • Jayne Shrimpton

      Hello Adrian

      Thank you for explaining about the 2 cent stamp and its significance. That’s very interesting information and the links that you have provided will also be useful for future reference.
      I hope that Bev Burney is reading this: thanks to you, we now have a very close date range of 1864-1866 for this photograph, which may help her to positively identify her ancestor.

  • E Thomas

    I was interested to see what appears to be an extending or folding rule clutched in his right hand – wood with a brass end. It is an odd thing to have in a family photograph. Would it denote a trade – carpenter? draughtsman?

  • Jayne Shrimpton

    That’s very observant of you to notice the wooden rule that this gentleman is holding. Sometimes studio photographers provided suitable ‘props’ for clients to hold, such as a letter or book; however this is an unusual and very specific implement, so I think it probably does, as you suggest, indicate his trade or profession. I’m not entirely sure what that would have been, but a carpenter or draughtsman both seem plausible suggestions.

  • Chris Parrott

    You’ve probably already noticed that the stamp is not a postage stamp, but a tax stamp (Internal revenue). This info is unlikely to help identify the subject, but it might lead you down other avenues which will throw more light.