By Heather Killen
A Bear River woman is using her eye for fashions to pinpoint clues in old photographs.
Jenny Milligan, an old-school fashionista, is all about keeping the historical authenticity in her bustles and crinolines. She uses the term socio-costumology when she describes how her interest in fashion is actually a window on the past.
“It’s a great way to learn history,” she said. “Fashion expands and contracts over time, hemlines go up and down. The clothes tell the story of the people, the people tell the story of the times.”
While some may find her penchant for petticoats a bit straight-laced, her eye for empire waists or mutton sleeves can come in pretty handy when she needs to date old photographs. Many people have family photos that have been passed down to them, but very little information came with the pictures to identify the past generations.
On March 3 from 1 until 4 p.m. she’ll be offering a workshop on how to find information in old photographs. She’ll be discussing how to date photos and use the information contained in official records to help identify the people in the pictures.
Anyone interested in genealogy is welcome to attend and people are encouraged to bring along their collections of old photographs. Helping to identify people in old photographs is a great way to fill in the gaps of the family tree.
“Many people have a box of old photos that hold no meaning for them,” she said. “If you can pin them to a particular decade you can sort out the generations.”
Even if the faces are unfamiliar at first, it’s possible to build a connection to the past by looking closely at the little details of the photograph, she said. It’s the little things that offer clues to the person’s story, she added. Maybe the photo was snapped on a special day, such as a birthday, wedding or engagement.
The person could be wearing a pocket watch or white stockings, these items can tell a lot about the people and the times.
“White stockings are for people who stay clean,” she said. “If you know that your family made their living getting dirty, it’s probably not a relative.”
How people are posed together can also tell a great deal about their relationships to each other.
Milligan said it all started when she was looking through the Bear River Historical Society’s collection of photographs and found an intriguing photo of a group of men and women. Judging from the style of the clothing, it was likely taken in the late 19th century.
Milligan added that it’s rare to see a mixed group of men and women informally posed like this and even more surprising to see a black man among them. The more she looked at the tiny details of this photograph, the more it intrigued her.
The more she was able to see in the photo, the more questions it raised for her.
“The mixture of ages, races, and genders is a bit unusual for the time and the casual and relaxed poses suggests a familiarity,” she said. “It piqued my curiosity and I wondered, who is this group?”
While no one in the village has been able to identify them, she may have picked up a clue in Halifax. She was attending a heritage event and looking through a collection of memorabilia from St. Paul’s Cathedral when she spied a choir photo very similar to the one back home in Bear River.
“When I look at this group of people, they seem very comfortable with one another,” she said. “I think they had a lot in common and they enjoyed being together.”
She says she thinks the photo she found in Bear River was likely a visiting choir and one day she may come across new information that can identify it.
For more information on the Family Photo Workshop, call Milligan at 467-1467. Tickets are $12 in advance, or $15 at the door for this event, a fundraiser for the Bear River Historical Society.