How to identify old family photographs is a challenge for genealogy researchers. Learn the steps to identify those unknown photographs in your collection.
Old family photographs.
When you start researching genealogy and your family history, old family photographs seem to find their way to you. An aunt cleans out a closet. A distant relative heard you “do genealogy” and sends you old family photos in the mail. You find photos of your ancestors online or in a family tree online.
When I began researching our family history, boxes (literally!) of photographs showed up in the back of my aunt’s car one Thanksgiving. Other times, my ancestors arrived by snail mail. Still others by arrived by email.
Some identified. Some not.
Some labeled. Some (most) not.
Unknown individuals in a those photographs? I was up for the challenge.
But first, I had a lot to learn. I had to learn about antique photographs, the different types of photographs and when they were used. I learned about clothing styles and hairstyles. I learned how to find and decipher the clues in a photograph.
It is possible to identify these unknown individuals in our old family photographs.
Let’s see what the process to identify those old family photographs looks like……
The Couple in an Old Family Photograph
The photograph above fascinated me as soon as I came across it. It was, of course, unlabeled.
Who was this couple?
Were they a part of my family tree?
They must be of importance to someone since their photograph was saved. Fortunately, this was one photograph mystery that was solvable.
Provenance – Where Did The Photo Come From?
The provenance of a photograph refers to the photo’s origin or its history. In other words, how did you come to have the photograph.
If you only have a digital copy and the original is in possession of another family member or genealogy researcher, consider how that person came into possession of the photograph. Ask yourself, “Why is THAT photograph in [Susie’s] possession?”
Knowing where a photograph originated or how it came to you or the current owner provides valuable clues in the process of identification.
I received the photograph above in a box of many photographs that originally belonged to my great-grandmother Winnie Haley Carr of Halifax County, Virginia. Unfortunately, no one in today’s generations of the family knew who the couple was.
Knowing the photo was in with Winnie’s other family photographs (and there were many!), eliminated large segments of my family tree.
- The photograph was not from my paternal grandfather’s side of the family. I could safely eliminate the Talbott and Richardson sides of the family from consideration.
- The photograph was likely from the Haley or Carr family lines.
- The possibility existed the photograph was not a part of my family tree at all.
The focus turned to the Haley and Carr families. Winnie Haley was married to Silas Baker Carr of Halifax County, VA. Oral history stated great-grandmother Winnie Haley Carr did not particularly like her Carr in-laws. That same oral history also made vague references over the years that Winnie’s husband Baker Carr was the black sheep of the family. The family visited the Carrs on few occasions.
While the oral history did not prove anything, understanding the family dynamics led me to focus on Haley family members as the best approach. After all, if Winnie did not like her in-laws, would she have had a special photograph of her in-laws?
Photograph Type – When Was That Old Family Photograph Taken?
Suspecting now the couple belonged to the Haley family, determining the date the photograph was taken was the next step.
The photograph above is of a thick cardboard type and measures 5 1/8″ x 7 1/8″. Interestingly, the photograph was cut at the top as if it was cut smaller to fit in an album or frame. By the time the photograph came to me, it was no longer in an album or frame.
The photo image itself was an oval shape.
The photo’s physical characteristics provided the clues needed to date this photograph.
This old family photograph is a cabinet card from the late 1870’s to 1880’s. Cabinet cards were popular from the 1860’s-1890’s with its popularity peaking in the 1880’s. The oval shape was common of cabinet cards from the 1870’s though can be a bit later.
Fashion – What Were They Wearing?
The fashions worn by the couple in the photograph provided the next clues to identifying this old family photograph.
Notice the narrower skirt of the 1880’s worn by the woman. The bodice extends below the waist and the skirt has a draped overskirt.
Hairstyles in the late 1870’s-early 1880’s featured center parts, often with a “frizzing” of the hair in front. This woman wears the center part, but keeps the more traditional bun. While she does not appear to be the height of fashion for the 1870’s-1880’s, she does fit into the correct time period.
The man’s outfit is indicative of the 1870’s and early 1880’s. His clean-cut hair parted on the side is consistent with the late 1870’s and early 1880’s.
[Oh, and did you notice his eyes! Swoon worthy, I’m sure. ]
The old family photograph is consistently placing this couple in the 1870’s to early 1880’s.
Clues In The Pose
The way a person or group of individuals was positioned in a photograph can provide clues to the date a photograph was taken. Just as fashions changed over time, popular poses changed over time, too. Two notable things stand out in this particular photograph.
First, the man is sitting and the woman is standing. I wasn’t sure if this was actually indicative of anything or not, but I made note of it. Turns out, this pose did help in identifying this photograph.
Secondly, the woman’s left hand is positioned rather prominently draped over the man’s shoulder. Unfortunately, the photograph is not of the quality to determine if she is wearing a ring on that left hand. A left hand with a ring was frequently prominently displayed in wedding and engagement photographs.
Turning To The Family Tree – Was The Couple In Its Branches?
Let’s review what had been learned
- The old family photograph was likely from the Haley side of my family.
- The photo dated to the 1870’s to early 1880’s.
- The photo was strongly suspected to be a wedding photograph.
Turning to the family tree was the next step. Reviewing the Haley family tree for a couple who fit the above parameters revealed only one couple: Clara (Holt) and Will Haley. Clara Holt and Will Haley were married in 1883 in Halifax County, VA. The photograph was likely taken around their wedding date.
Admittedly, the fashions of the couple confused me a bit. Neither is wearing the height of fashion for the early 1880’s. Looking at the community and the lifestyle of the residents yields an explanation.
Both Will Haley and Clara Holt grew up and lived most of their lives in Halifax County, VA . This was a rural area with the most common livelihood being that of a farmer. The Haleys and Holts were no different. Clara’s father Branch Holt was the overseer of the Clarkton Plantation and Will Haley assumed that role after his marriage to Clara. Neither of the couple came from moneyed families and practicality was a way of life. Keeping up with the latest fashions was not of paramount importance.
Remember that pose where Clara was standing and Will was sitting in the chair? The couple’s grandchildren told me Will Haley was over six feet tall while Clara was barely 5 feet tall. This pose makes sense now. Had the couple’s positions been reversed, it would have looked odd for sure.
Sometimes You Get Lucky!
Several years after going through the process of identifying Clara and Will, a distant cousin who happened to be one of the couple’s grandchildren confirmed their identity. Confirmation is not something that typically happens!
Other Posts Of Interest:
- How to Identify 5 Types of Old Photographs.
- How To Pull Genealogy Clues From Your Old Family Photographs
- Tips & Resources To Find Old Family Photos
- Restoring Old Family Photos – A Vivid-Pix Tutorial
- Preserving Your Family’s Historic Photographs
Resources For Identifying Old Family Photographs
- Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries by Maureen Taylor
- Hairstyles 1840-1900 by Maureen Taylor
- Dating 19th Century Photographs by Gary Clark of PhotoTree.com