Trouble in a Tintype Album: Reading the Clues

It’s no secret that I love working on photo mysteries for clients. My favorite type of photo puzzler is reading the clues in family photo albums. Why?   Well, each one tells a story. Every album reveals details about who put the images in those places, as long as the past hasn’t been tampered with.   That’s the key. Those images have to be in their original order

In February 2016, the International Center of Photography posted a lovely tintype album from their collections in their blog. You can view it here.

You know where I’m going. I contacted them to see if I could help.   The album’s had a rough life. Pages are ripped, photos are missing, random scribbles appear on some pages, and the photos…well they’ve been touched a few times but these gorgeous images depict primarily prosperous African Americans from the late 1860s through circa 1900. The young woman (to the left) likely posed in the late 1870s to early 1880s.

Analyzing a photo album is a lot like the game of baseball. The pitches and hits are places where it’s possible to put the clues together to get a home run, i.e., an identification. As you’ll read, the more strikes a pitcher throws the opposing team, the less likely his opponent will win the game.


Proving the Provenance

The first step in identifying who’s who in an album is assessing the history of ownership. The common problem is that this information is often lost. Antique dealers don’t usually keep track of who sold the album or even where it was from. Even if the dealer knows some of the details they may not be the first seller of the article.   You guessed it: no one knows anything about this album.   Strike one.

There is one clue. On the inside of the front cover, someone wrote “Lizzie ***an album.” The asterisks represent illegible letters. If only that handwriting were legible, then we might have had a chance to hit that pitch.


Who’s on First?

Not the base, or even an Abbot and Costello comedy routine, but who’s on the first page of the album. It might be a child, a husband, a parent, or sometimes the owner of the album. That’s usually a clue to who created the picture order. Unfortunately, there are no images on pages one or two of this album. Strike two.


Pages of Clues

Many of the pages of this small 1860s style leather-covered album contain handwritten initials on the pages, some with pictures and others without. The initials are found either above or below the images or where the images WOULD be. There is also a group of loose tintypes stuck in the back of the album. It’s possible that the same initials referred to the same person but the missing images plus those taken out of the sequence complicate the identification. That this is a family album is clear. There are multiple images of the same person sprinkled throughout the pages. Looking at all the pictures side by side reveals a family resemblance between older and younger women. They have similar eyes and noses. Perhaps they are mother and daughter.

The final page of the album is missing its photo. Directly above the opening where the tintype should be are the initials “M L W” and above that is written Mrs. T.C. Hoodenpyle. Since most of the images date between 1860 and 1880, I did a general search of the 1870 Federal Census for T. Hoodenpyle. There is a T.J. Hoodenpyle who lived in Sequatchie, Tennessee. Could this be the one clue that links all the other photos? Perhaps the C is a reversed J. The missing picture could hold the clue to who’s who in this curious album.

According to a more general search for Hoodenpyles in the 1870 Federal Census, there weren’t that many individuals with that unusual surname in the census. That’s the fun part of a less common name. It’s more likely to find what you’re seeking, unlike a search for Smith or Brown. All of the matches in the census claimed white as their race. They all lived in the following places: Kent, Michigan; Dent, Michigan; Bledsoe, Marion, and Sequatchie, Tennessee; and Washington, Warren, and Limestone, Texas.

The only other name clearly written above another blank page is “McGruder. The surname is preceded by what seems to be the word “faster”, possibly a nickname. There may be a cross match between McGruders and Hoodenpyles that would support where these individuals lived. A search of the 1870 Federal census resulted in many hits for McGruder, however I found no overlap with any of the exact locations in the previous search for Hoodenpyle. It appears this album contains images taken in many places.

Studio Clues

Most of the images are tintypes with no paper mats. This means they lack any photographer information. Only two the images contain a photographer’s name: E.W. Mealy of Grand St. Monroe, Louisiana and W.F. Simpson (no place name).

Mealy appears in the 1870 Federal Census of Louisiana as a photographer but, by 1880, he’s calling himself an artist. The image dates from circa 1870.

Simpson is a harder name to track. It’s a common name. The photo is a small card photograph of a Caucasian looking man with a name possibly of James Den***. Is this really his name? Someone has used the rest of the card to practice their handwriting, so we can’t be 100% certain. The style of the card, the photographer’s imprint, and his clothing date this image to the 1860s.

There are three W.F. Simpson’s in the 1870 Federal census living in Maryland, Indiana and Tennessee, but none are photographers. It could be that Simpson was a photographer in the 1860s but, by 1870, had given up that trade. Estimating that his first name was William turns up a larger number of matches, but none are photographers. Despite the identity of one photographer at work in Louisiana, there is no indication that all the pictures were taken there. And factor in that the post-Civil War period was a time of migration for African American communities.

We may have finally come to strike three.

Mixed up Mess

My initial read of the album gave me a theory, but I needed to study all the pages to test it. Yes, it is strike three.   These pictures are mixed up. They were removed, then put back in random places.

Here’s my revised theory. Somewhere along the line either family removed the pictures of their beloved relatives OR these images were so lovely, they could be sold separately. Either one is a possibility. Sadly, the life of this album has made positive identification of its inhabitants tantalizingly difficult.


If you have a photo album you’d like to know more about, send me the details at photodetective