Mary E. McClain & Sisters, Possibly Nebraska, c. 1910

Unfortunately I know little about this wonderfully sharp photo beyond a notation on the back in Mom’s hand: “Mary Elizabeth McClain and sisters.”

The style of dress hints at a date of around 1900, give or take a decade or so. The photo is printed on postcard stock, with no indication of a studio imprint or location. So it could have been taken in Nebraska or Oregon, if it was even taken where Mary was living.

Let’s consider identifications. Many will recognize the lady on the left as Mary Elizabeth McClain (Nathan’s wife). But who are the others? Mary had six sisters, but only three were alive anywhere close to 1900: Sarah, Elmina and Ellen. Sarah and Elmina where the next older children to Mary in the family. Ellen was twelve years younger and the youngest child.

The lady in the middle looks a lot like Mary’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Lane. I believe it is Mary’s older sister Sarah, who lived in Missouri. But that identification is based on process of elimination rather than a positive identification based on some other photo of Sarah, since I have not found a photo of Sarah McClain Hull anywhere.

I’m quite certain the lady on the right is Ellen, based on resemblance to a photo of her taken in 1905. However she looks significantly older than her 1905 photo, which suggests that this photo was taken some years after 1905.

One event that occurred in that time frame that might have brought the sisters together was the sudden death of Ellen’s husband, Charles Rathbun in 1910. The Rathbuns lived in Louisville, in eastern Nebraska. Sarah lived in Hale, Missouri, about 220 miles from Louisville on today’s highways. It probably would have been a somewhat greater distance by train in 1910, but not a particularly strenuous journey. Traveling from Albany to Louisville, on the other hand, would have been a strenuous journey lasting several days by train. Is it reasonable to think Mary would have made this journey to support her sister? If she did, did she travel alone, or did Nathan accompany her? These are questions that are probably impossible to answer more than a century later. Still, the date of 1910 seems a reasonable one for the photo, and the sudden death of Charles Rathbun seems the sort of event that might have brought the sisters together even over great distances.

Just assuming the photo was taken in 1910, Mary would have been 60, Sarah would have been 63 and Ellen would have been 48.

Regardless of any of this, though, this is a wonderful Victorian studio portrait, and a nice photo of great grandmother Mary McClain.

5 thoughts on “Mary E. McClain & Sisters, Possibly Nebraska, c. 1910”

  1. This is a great photo! I am struck by the strong resemblance between Great-grandma McClain and our mother!

  2. I agree with you both, Dorothy and Donna. I, too, was struck by Mom’s resemblance to Mary as I was studying this photo.

  3. Just a note that I substantially rewrote this post based on better information about identities.

  4. I’m embarrassed to say that I have had to rewrite this post yet again based on more and better information about the identification of the sisters. My apologies.

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