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Do you have old family photographs in your possession that you know nothing about? Are you wondering who the individual are and where they fit on your family tree? Are those photographs thick “cardboard” or feel like metal? Determining the identity of your unknown photographs can be daunting, but it is possible. You need to apply systematic research techniques just as you do in your genealogy research. Let’s get started.
Where the Photograph Was Obtained?
How did you come to have the photograph(s) in your family collection? Which side of the family are they from? Was the photograph in with a group of others? If so, pay attention to the other photographs as well. Are some of those photographs identified…..even if just by surname? Knowing this can help place your unknown photograph in a particular family line.
Is your unknown photograph in an old family photo album? Pay attention to the grouping of photographs. Often in family photo albums, the groupings of photos tend to be family groupings. Just as performing cluster genealogy can help break down your genealogy brick walls, determining the identity of others (either in the photograph or in the album) can provide valuable clues to identify your specific photograph.
Type of Photograph
The type of photograph can place the your photograph in a time period. If you know the time period a photograph was taken, you can narrow down possible candidates on your family tree. Read more about the types of photographs in this previous post.
Daguerreotype – 1840-1860
Ambrotype – 1854-1868
Tintype – 1856-1878
Carte de Visite – 1859-1889
Cabinet Cards – 1866-1903
Fashions in a Photograph
Having their photographs taken was an “event” for our ancestors. Attention was paid to their appearances and fashion was important. The styles of clothing worn by our ancestors in their photographs are valuable clues in determining the time frame a photograph was taken.
Knowing the time frame of a photograph can narrow down the possible candidates from your family tree. If you are unfamiliar with the fashions of your ancestors’ days, take time to learn more. Many great resources are available to assist you.
Two such examples are include:
- Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900 by Maureen Taylor
- Victorian Fashions and Costumes from Harper’s Bazar, 1867-1898 (Dover Fashion and Costumes) by Stella Blum
Hairstyles in a Photograph
Just like the style of clothing, the photograph’s subject’s hairstyle will provide information about the time period the photograph was taken. Pay attention to your ancestor’s hair! If children are in the photograph, the hairstyle can indicate the gender of the child. Fashionable Folks Hairstyles 1840-1900 by Maureen Taylor is a great resource.
Props Used in a Photograph
Look closely at what else is in the photograph besides the individual(s). What props are used in the photograph? What type of backdrop is used? Was the photograph taken in a studio? Was the photograph taken in front of the family home?
The answer to all of these questions provide important information on time, place and family line of the unknown individual.
Keep in mind that not all of the individuals in your old family photographs are actually related to you. The introduction of the Brownie camera in February 1900 made photography more accessible and affordable for the general public. You may find photographs of family friends and neighbors among your old family photographs.
Create a research plan for identifying your unknown photographs just as you would for searching more traditional genealogy records. Now get started!
Enjoy these related posts:
- Date a Photograph by Your Ancestor’s Hairstyle
- Top 10 Resources for Dating Old Photographs
- Medical Genealogy + A Photograph = A Young Woman’s Story
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