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November 5, 2008

Who can Identify this Mystery Building circa 1870s?

This is a photo (a CDV or Carte de visite) of a mystery building with a crowd of men and women in front.

Some are looking out the windows of this building which is draped in bunting. A photograph of a man is placed over the front door and you can see the crush of people at the door.

My best guess is that this is a funeral, perhaps of a President, certainly of an important man.

From the type of photograph (Carte de Visite), the clothing styles, with the women in bustle dresses and hats perched atop their heads, and the men in bowlers and long coats, I estimate the date to be circa 1872-1880. However bowler hats were worn from 1850-1900 and bustles were in style from about 1860-1900 so it is difficult to narrow the timeline with certainty.

What I would like to know is

* What and where is this building?

* What is the occassion?

The only other clues I have are that this photograph was the last in an album of Cabinet Cards from Chicago Illinois photographers. Two were from Omaha Nebraska but more than 60 of the photos in the album were from Chicago. The image itself is not clear, it is rather fuzzy and faded so it is not possible to make out good details. In fact, I manipulated the colours and the sharpness of the original in order to get as clear and sharp an image as possible to post here.

Anyone care to guess what this building is and where it is?


Thomas MacEntee said...

First thoughts:

- not a funeral since there would probably be black bunting. This appears to be more of a dedication

- perhaps the building is named after one of our early presidents. The portrait looks to be Washington, Adams, Madison, Monroe or one of the early ones

- seems to be Spring or Fall given the clothing - not heavy enough for winter

- Chicago makes sense since it might be near the river and the drop in elevation of the building. But it would have to be either right before the Great Fire of 1871 or at least ten years later since much of the city was decimated by that event

- I am trying to pinpoint the architectural style and the building usage - it does not look like a warehouse or an armory. And it is not a business since it is set off the main street. I think it might be a school.

Genealogy Blogger said...

Thank you Thomas - excellent points. I agree, now that you point it out, there is no black bunting, so -- not a funeral. Maybe it is a dedication of the opening of a building (a school as you suggest?). And with the square corners of the CDV it should be pre 1872 so that might just fit with your idea of pre 1871. The problem I have with determing date using the photo itself is that it is a very odd one - it's thin paper, small (CDV size) BUT it is on thick heavy cardstock (unusual for a CDV) But it is not a cabinet card... the mystery continues!

Patrick said...

I don't have a guess--or a good guess at least--but I did just want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. It's always interesting! Thanks! --Patrick Stoy

Genealogy Blogger said...

Thanks Patrick! It's good to know that someone enjoys my ramblings :-)


Patricia A. Rogers said...

I am thinking it may be a visit of a presiding President. I cannot imagine such a turnout for a building dedication - unless a President was doing it.

I, too, think it is a northern state prior to 1871. I was thinking the end of the Civil War, but I don't think I can see the likeness of Lincoln in the picture.

Perhpas we need to concentrate on the northern states that sent a President to Washington - returning to thank the voters, etc.

As Ever,


Forensic Genealogy Blog said...


There are two things you can do to date this photograph. Knowing the date and possible location, you might be able to search newspapers to see if there was an event in that area that might be the one shown in the picture.

The first thing is to check it if the photo is mounted on cardboard, that is, laminated layers of thin paper stock. Since cardboard was invented in 1870, if the photo is on cardboard it has to be after that. Until 1870, photos were on Bristol board, one piece of thick paper stock. Bristol board was probably used somewhat after 1870, but probably fell into disuse somewhat after that date.

The best way to check for cardboard is to look at the corners of a photo. Corners usually have seen more wear and tear than other parts of the mat, so layers of cardboard at the corners usually separate first.

The second thing you can do to date the photo is to measure the thickness of all the mats of the photos from Chicago in the collection that are on cardboard. As technology improved, more and thicker layers could be added to the laminated stack. So the cardboard used for mats became thicker. If the photograph is from Chicago (and from what you say it probably is), then by graphing the thickness of the mat versus the known dates of other Chicago photos, you can see where the thickness of this one fits in. This will give you an approximate date for your unknown photo.

You have to use the mats from other photos from Chicago because newer and thicker cardboard was not universally available or used by everyone at one time. Photographers in larger cities tended to keep up with the latest styles and also had a larger clientele, so that they frequently bought new stock. My limited observations show that thicker cardboard was used earlier in larger cities for these reasons. So when comparing the thickness of photos with known dates to determine an unknown, you should use photographs that came from the same geographical area.

You can find out more hints like this on dating old photos in my book The Dead Horse Investigation, Forensic Photo Analysis for everyone, or by visiting my website at We have a weekly photoquiz that might interest you.

Colleen Fitzpatrick
Forensic Genealogy