Old Family Photo’s

The Coney Island Express
A photo from an unknown year on the “Coney Island Express”


The “Coney Island Express” Family Photo Mystery

A few year’s ago I was able to locate surviving family members of a recently discovered branch of my grandfathers side of the family. From that came the above photo, with names written on the back, passed down to a distant cousin from a cousin of my grandfather to her daughter.

Attempting To Date An Old Photo

First off, this photo is a goldmine for me as it is the one and only photo I have ever seen of my great grandfather William “Billy Murray”, the shorter man on the left side of this photo. When trying to place a date on this photo I had several clues, mostly surrounding the apparent age of the people in the photo.

First we have William Murray born 1883. Next, his brothers widow Margaret, born 1884, Margaret’s sister, Pauline, born 1882 and Pauline’s husband, John, born 1878.

Next, I need to know the years this subway car would be in service and available to have a photo taken on it. That is when I found this incredible photography blog, from which I learned that this train was subway car #983, built by The American Car & Foundry Co in 1935.

Clue #3 in this case is that fact that my great grandfather passed away in September of 1937. Assuming the car was not in service during a summer until 1936, that gives me the window of 1936 or 1937.  This make the approximate ages of these folks to be 53, 52, 54 and 58.  They somehow all look younger then that to me.

Coney Island History

Although I do not believe the photo is taken upon the actual train car, I do imagine that the new car to Coney Island would have been a big deal, and I have to assume this canvas backdrop behind a railing would have been the type of thing that families would get a photo on the same way families might have a photo taken at a staged setting in a modern amusement park. This type of thing would probably be staged by some local photo studio, so if anybody happens to have any info on that, I would be interested in hearing it.


Cone Island History
Walter Arnold Photography

6 thoughts on “Old Family Photo’s”

  1. Howdy,

    I saw your tweet for this post – I know that sometimes dating photos can be tough!

    I don’t think your photo is from the 1930’s, it is very similar to others I’ve seen from the 1910s, and the ladies’ dress and the man’s boater hat in particular are from that period. I’ve several photos in my family from Coney and that time, and my Gran and friends wear almost exactly the same dress styles. I think the photo is from Coney Island itself and not related to the later train.

    I also agree, the group looks more like they are in their late 20s to me.

    You can see some examples of photos with this same Coney Express backdrop if you stroll through eBay:


    Other popular Coney photo backdrops are sitting in a car and sitting on a crescent moon, both of which my family did. Good luck with your research!

    1. Any other photos Ive seen online with a date seem to be a guess from whoever posts the photos.

      Their ages always bothers me. The taller man looks clearly younger to me then the shorter man, but he should be older if this William is my great grandfather. Margaret had young children in the 19 teens, and her husband died in 1928, so I always just took it for granted that he was dead and they were grown when this was taken, but I suppose there could be many more family members standing to the side watching this photo being taken. But, they also seem to look much better then I would expect poor Ironworkers and a widow to look in 1935. I can’t imagine them hanging the name “Coney Island Express” off of this as the name of a train if no train or subway line had that name, but there could also have been a line with that name before the pictured car was built in 1935. Lot of evidence for and against this being a mid 1930’s photo. Thanks for the insightful comment.

  2. I have a photo of my great grandmother Mary’s brother taken in the same place:

    If that doesn’t work, try http://imgur.com/hGOVuFP

    Given the label, I’ve identified this as Tom, the older brother of my great-grandmother Mary. Tom died in 1910 at the age of 35.

  3. I think your photo is much earlier from the dress of the participants. I also think the back drop is a cable car or other public transit vehicle rather than a subway car.

    I would suggest you take a look at these resources:

    Greg Borzo’s book: Cable Cars and Their Startling Stories (1882-1906)

    How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers

    Thanks for sharing the photograph!

  4. Hello, just saw your tweet. I am a librarian, old photo collector and I was a history major, so your dilemma is right up my alley. I can tell immediately that the photo is not any older than 1920. It is probably between 1890-1918, but even more likely 1900-1910. This is because of the lady on the right. Her dress is similar to the late-Victorian “S-curve” silhouette. See here:

    Also, this website (below) has some great links that might help you date the photo more precisely. I hope this helps! Feel free to email me if you need more help. I love answering questions like these! 🙂


    You might want to visit your local public library and look for some books or resources with images of clothing and hats from the 1880-1920 time period. Ask a librarian for help. A book with the right images might help you compare things. But based on the puffy sleeves, the all-white (or at least pale pastel) color of their dresses and the type of waist, I have to say this looks like circa 1905.

  5. On second thought, their clothing might be closer to 1898…..based on the boater hat, which became popular in the 1890s, and the shape of the sleeves on the women’s dresses. Leg-of-mutton sleeves reached their peak in about 1895, and these are definitely not leg-of-mutton sleeves. So I think this photo is 1895-1905.

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