Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mystery Solved

Parnassus wins my virtual deerstalker cap for guessing the inscription on the very first try. And Carol P. also wins my virtual deerstalker cap for suggesting the higher dpi, which allowed me to verify that Parnassus' guess was correct. Steve of The Urban Cottage gets a virtual deerstalker cap, as well. Congratulations!

This is my tracing over the 1200dpi scan. One note of interest: in graphology, the shape of the "A" in "Austin" is called a "Star T," and is a sign of doggedness, or persistence. Writers using that mark tend to finish whatever they start. It's interesting that Stewart's cousin used that shape for "A"s, and not "T's. Perhaps later in life he or she did.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to solving my conundrum. You are all History Detectives, and you each receive your very own virtual Ruffnerian Decoder Ring. Congratulations!

I did a quick search through census records from 1900 and 1910 and found three S. A. Austins, all born in the 1840s (which would probably be the correct birth date for this teenager with late 1850s attire):

S. A. Austin   St. Clair, Alabama   1842
S. A. Austin   St. Joseph, Michigan   1842
S. A. Austin   Leflore, Mississippi   1846

Perhaps the sitter for my ambrotype is one of these three people, and lived into the beginning of the 20th century.


  1. Good detective solving - Parnaussus did brilliantly, getting it all correct first go round - well done.

  2. Indeed amazing that Parnassus got that on the first try.

    Is there something distinctive about the attire that dates the photo to the late 1850s?

    Thank you for the Decoder Ring. I love it!

  3. Hi, Rosemary - A white owl will be delivering your virtual Ruffnerian Decoder Ring shortly!

  4. Hi, Steve - I base my date on several factors.

    First, I love reading about the history of the American Presidency, and I've been looking at daguerreotypes of early politicians for a long time. The larger tie that took your fancy is a fashion of the 1850s, possibly the late 1840s, though if it were the 1840s, the young man's collar would likely be standing up.

    Second, I look at the image itself. Our teenager is sitting for an ambrotype. Daguerreotypes, which were the first photography, spanned from 1839 to approximately 1860. Images were produced on silvery surfaces with a process that included mercury. Ambrotypes succeeded daguerreotypes, were produced on glass and were easier and less dangerous to make. Ambrotypes date to the mid-1850s. The brass frame around our teenager is of a simpler design, indicating that it's an earlier ambrotype.

    So, based on the style of the collar and tie, and the style of an early ambrotype, I would date the image to the late 1850s.

  5. Thank you Mark, this sleuthing work was a lot of fun. Congratulations to Parnassus for being so clever.

  6. Thanks to you, too. Now I know that my blogging friends hold the keys to a lot of answers!

  7. Thank you, Mark, for that explanation. I'm extremely impressed.

  8. Wow, my first virtual award, and my first deerstalker, virtual or otherwise. Thank you.

    I hope you are right that your S.A. Austin is one of those survivors into the 20th century, so that he had a long, interesting life--from slavery to automobiles, all in one lifetime.
    --Road to Parnassus

  9. Hi again, Steve - You're welcome. I learn a lot from your site, and am happy to reciprocate.

  10. Hi, Parnassus - The virtual deerstalker cap is no small matter! Many seek it, but few attain it.

    I also hope that Stewart made it past the Civil War, which took many boys as young and younger than he. If he did live into the 20th century, he would indeed have seen much change in his lifetime.

    That reminds me of a conversation I had with my grandmother, who was born in the 1880s. She lived to see men land on the moon, and I commented to her how amazing it was that she'd seen the span from horse-and-buggy to the moon landing. She laughed and said, "Mark, in my village, there were no buggys!"

  11. Shoot! I missed the decoder ring! Great mystery solved!

  12. Hi, Theresa - I honestly did not expect that inscription to be solved so quickly! But fear not, I'm sure there will be more chances at the decoder ring ...