Documentary Photos

Photographs are amazing sources of information. Every photograph documents something, but we are often frustrated by not knowing, for example, the names of those who appear in an image or the location of the buildings or the street depicted. But historical information may be gleaned, nevertheless, from some detail that can be identified: the year of an automobile on the street or the style of the clothing worn.

Consider this very damaged photograph of a group of young girls:

What does it have to tell us about girls whose names are not known nor is what brought them together as a group with a woman who is probably their teacher, rather than their mother, since the girls are too close in age to be sisters?

A bit of research into clothing and hair styles places the photo in the Civil War period, when hair parted in the center and drawn back tightly was the ubiquitous style for both girls and women and when full skirts — often with hoops — and sleeves that were short and puffed or long and full were also the style.

The photo was ripe for restoration and even colorization by an expert hand. Such work can be transformative. Thanks to Fred Lang for restoration of the photo, which had been folded so many times that he said looked as though it had been stored in a pocket watch!


With new clarity brought to the image, five of the girls clearly have little books — probably testaments — in their hands. It seems likely they are a Sunday School class, and the woman is their teacher. Variations in the style of their dresses — some with V-shaped bodices, others with rounded necklines of different depths, even off-the-shoulder, and varied fabric patterns — can be found in style books of the period. The girls’ skirts do not seem to be hooped, but the teacher’s does.