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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Identifying Your Old Family Photos

Years ago I was given boxes and boxes of old photos. These old family photos are a treasured part of my family history. Sad to say many of them were not labeled on the back with names, dates, or places. The photographs have a story to tell...but about whom? Who is this person I am looking at.
Solving the mystery faces and places in your old family photographs requires knowledge of your family history, combined with good old fashioned detective work. When you're ready to take on the challenge, these are the steps to take.
1. First I need to identify the type of photograph. Not all old photographs are the same. By identifying the type of photographic technique used to create your old family photos, it is possible to narrow down the time period when the photo was taken. Daguerreotypes, for example, were popular from 1839 to about 1870, while cabinet cards were in use from about 1866 to 1906. Ambrotypes in 1851. Ambrotypes were presented in mounts and cases in the same fashion as daguerreotypes and because of this they are commonly mistake for daguerreotypes. America was the favorite place of production. Early tintypes were cased like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. It is difficult to tell an ambrotype from a tintype when it is under glass in a case. Uncased tintypes are readily identified by the thin metallic plate holding the positive image. Occasionally tintypes are found on plates that are brown or red instead of black. They were made in a variety of sizes the most common being 2½ x 3½ inches, the same size as the carte de visite paper prints which were popular 1860. They were the size of the visiting cards and were highly popular and collected.

The setting or backdrop for a photograph may be able to provide clues to location or time period. Early photographs, especially those taken prior to the advent of flash photography in 1884, were often taken outside, to take advantage of natural light. Often the family may appear posed in front of their family home or automobile. You may have photos with that same home or car that you have the name on.

Photographs taken during the 19th century were not the casual snapshots of today but, generally, formal affairs where the family got dressed in their "Sunday best." Clothing fashions and hairstyle choices changed from year to year, providing yet another way to determine the approximate date when the photograph was taken. You need to pay special attention to waist size and styles, necklines, skirt lengths and widths, dress sleeves and fabric choices. Women's clothing styles tend to change more frequently than men, but men's fashions can still be helpful. Menswear is all in the details, such as coat collars and neckties. There are books that you can buy or get from the library to help you identify the time period of the clothing.

Check both the front and the back of the photograph for a photographer's name or imprint. If you're lucky, the photographer's imprint will also list the location of his studio. This can narrow down your search some if you know where different ancestors lived. Ask the members of local historical or genealogical society to determine the time period the photographer was in business.

Once you have been able to narrow down a location and time period for an old photograph, your knowledge of your ancestors comes into play. Where did the photo come from? Knowing which branch of the family the photo was passed down from can narrow down your search. If the photograph is a family portrait or group shot, try to identify other people in the photo. Look for other photos from the same family line which include recognizable details - the same house, car, or furniture. Talk to your family members to see if they recognize any of the faces or features of the photograph. This is one big key.. talk to the older family members while they can remember or are even still with you.
If you still aren't able to identify the subjects of your photo, create a list of the ancestors which meet all of the possible criteria, including approximate age, family line and location. Then cross off any people who you have been able to identify in other photos as different individuals. You may find you only have one or two possibilities left!
Good luck on your quest to identify family members.

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