Four Howard siblings in black and white photo from 1950's. 3 men and one woman
How To Trace Your Family Tree,  Old Family Photos

Identify an Old Family Photograph With These 5 Simple Steps

Do you have photos of your ancestors in your closet? Explore these 5 steps to identify an old family photograph!

They arrived by email, by snail mail and in the trunks of cars.  One or two at a time.  Sometimes whole boxes.

I’m talking about my ancestors’ photographs.

When I started my genealogy research and asking questions of everyone about our family history, family members decided to clean our their closets of all those photographs they had, but did not know who they were. So, I have spent many happy (and confused) hours attempting to identify the individuals in the photographs.

Starting with no knowledge of dating or evaluating old family photographs, the learning curve was steep. All I knew was each of the photographs was important to someone in the past generations of my family. I couldn’t even say if all of the individuals in those old photographs were actually related to me. Turns out they weren’t!

Yes, that learning curve was steep and absolutely fascinating!

Step by Step to Identify An Old Family Photograph

I am sharing with you steps you can take to begin evaluating and identifying your heirloom photographs. The photograph we will take a closer look at is from one of those boxes in the back of my aunt’s car.

A cabinet card in my own collection I had been puzzling over this one for several years. It was time to get serious about learning who this young man is.

Let’s walk through the steps used to identify this photograph.

Sepia toned 1900's Cabinet Card of William Elliott

Step #1 – Learn About the Photo’s Provenance – Where did the photograph Come From?

Knowing how you came to have that old family photograph or who had the photograph prior to you can help narrow down which family line to start searching. Sounds simple, but if you know this piece of information, you can rule out half of your family tree.

The photograph above was found in my paternal great grandmother’s red flocked  photo album. The album was coming apart and showing signs of mildew. It was also rather smelly. All of the photographs (carts des visites and cabinet cards) were taken out of the album before I could see them in their original order. This caused the loss of any sense of family groupings.

While any sense of family groupings was lost, knowing the photograph belonged to Esther Lee Richardson Talbott narrowed the family lines to Richardson, Talbott, and Elliott.  Because the majority of photographs pre-dated Esther’s marriage into the Talbott family, the photographs including this one likely were from the Richardson or Elliott families.

Esther Richardson Talbott was born in 1896 and died in 1923.  That indicates the photographs in her album pre-dated 1923.

What we know so far:  The photograph was most likely from the Elliott or Richardson family and pre-dated 1923.

Step #2 – Determine the Type Of Photograph You Have

Characteristics of the photograph itself provide clues to the date it was taken. This particular photograph was a thick “cardboard” stock measuring 4 1/4  x 6 inches. (The bottom of the photograph is cut off, perhaps so it would fit in the album better.) The size and thickness of the photograph identifies it as a cabinet card.

Cabinet cards were at their highest popularity in the 1880’s and 1890’s.  While not as popular in the early 1900’s, cabinet cards were not rare either.

The color of the photograph is a cream-colored background with a dark red/maroon on the back. Bold colors on the back such as deep browns, reds and greens began being used in the 1800’s-1890’s and into the 1900’s.

What we know so far: This cabinet card dates to the 1880’s-early 1900’s.

Step #3 – Research the Photographer

Photographer's mark on the back of the burgundy backed cabinet card. Important in identifying old photographs
Back of Cabinet Card

I find this step quite fascinating and fun!

You cannot miss the photographer’s logo on the back of this cabinet card.  Photographer’s logos provide valuable clues when attempting to identify a photograph including the location where the photograph was taken. Research into the photographer can provide a time frame and location for the photograph as well.

Photographer marks vary widely and may be found on the front or the back of the photograph. Marks can be quite large or much smaller, so be sure to check both sides of the photograph.

In this example, the photograph was taken by  Johnson Bros. Photographers of 467 & 469 Penna. [Pennsylvania] Ave. in Washington, D.C. A search of Washington, D.C. directories revealed a number of Johnsons as photographers from the 1860’s – 1920’s.

Note: You will notice the name Elwood Richardson written on the back of the cabinet card in blue ink(!). Elwood was Esther Richardson’s younger brother born in 1911 and could not be the young man in the photo. This represents someone incorrectly identifying the photograph.

Oh, and don’t ever (ever) write on a photograph in ink!

What we know so far: We have a location for the photograph as Washington, D.C. The time period determined in #2 above is consistent with Johnson Bros photographers being in D.C.

Step #4 – Date the Fashions Worn in the Photograph

Look closely at the man in the photo .  Note how he is dressed. He has a trim haircut and is wearing a fitted high cut vest. His jacket has three buttons, a popular style in the 1910’s.  The bowler style hat in his hand was a popular style in the 1910’s, too.

Performing a google image search on men’s clothing styles in the late 1800’s and early 1900′s helped place this young man in the 1910’s.

What we know so far:  The fashion this young man is wearing places him in the 1910’s.

Step #5 – Put the Clues Together! (Or “Mull and Ponder”)

To recap, the photograph is a cabinet card and dates to the early 1900’s/1910’s. The young man is most likely part of the Richardson or Elliott family lines.

Now it was time to turn to my family tree and previous genealogy research.

This photograph was taken in Washington, D.C. yet no family lines of the Richardson or Elliott families resided in or near Washington, D.C. Neither of these family lines had the means to travel such distances.

There was one family member that joined the military and traveled extensively.

Meet William F. Elliott (1883-1961)

William Elliott  was the son of C. R. Elliott [Cromulus Robert Elliott] and a first cousin to Esther Richardson. He was also a frequent letter and postcard writer to Esther Richardson from 1909-1915. (William was even a beau of Esther’s!) Fortunately, Esther saved these postcards and letters which remain in the family today. Reviewing the postcards and letters William sent to Esther revealed William’s reference to his trip to Washington, D.C. in 1913.

William F Elliott Letter - Washington DC

 So, we have William “Bill” Elliott in the right time, location and place on the family tree.

One photo done…..many more to go.


Identifying individuals in old photographs requires knowledge of old photographs and solid genealogy research.  Don’t rush the process. Take the time to “mull and ponder” the clues as you find them.

Now it’s your turn. Use the steps above and be methodical (and patient) in your process. The skills you gain with each  success will benefit you as you proceed in your identification of other photographs!

Learn More About Old Family Photographs:

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