Are family history clues hidden in your old family photos? Learn how to examine those photos for interesting details about your ancestors.
Genealogy Research,  Photographs

Finding Hidden Clues In Old Family Photos

Find hidden clues in old family photos. Candid photos work great for discovering fun details to fill out your family histories.

Are you missing hidden clues in old family photos?

A photograph is worth a thousand words.

 At least, that’s how the saying goes.  I don’t know about a thousand words, but I do know there are stories in the pictures of our ancestors. Photographs often fill in the details of a person’s life that is not found in the records.

Pinterest image with black and white photo of 3 women taken in the early 1920's. White words on tan background reading Find Hidden Clues in Old Family Photos.
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Carefully studying  and paying attention to the details in a photograph will often yield clues about the individuals in the photograph.

Take the photograph below as an example.

1920's Black and white photo of Best friends Esther Richardson and Nannie Farson writing letters
Esther Richardson Talbott and Nannie Lee Farson

On the surface, I know this is a photograph of Esther Richardson Talbott (left) and her friend Nannie Lee Farson (right). Esther’s mother Hattie Elliott Richardson is in the center.  The two young women are enjoying time together writing letters while Hattie looks on.

Now look closer. Notice anything specific about Esther?

Details of women's hands
Close Up of the Hands

Esther (on the left) was left handed!  Who knew?  The family is fortunate to have many of Esther’s letters to her young beau (and eventually her husband) Boss Henry Talbott. Having read Esther’s handwriting in the past, I had not picked up that it was written by a lefty.  Usually a left handed writer has a distinctive quality about their penmanship, but Esther’s did not.

Now look closer at Nannie Lee’s hand (on the right). She is right handed and she wears a wedding band on her left ring finger.  This photograph can now be placed within a time frame. Nannie Lee Farson was married in March 1919. Esther passed away from influenza in January of 1923. This is a photograph of the women taken between March of 1919 and December 1922.  

Black and white photo of 3 women taken in winter

Don’t overlook a photo’s background! The trees in the background are bare. Esther is wearing a coat but Nannie is not. This indicates the time of year was late fall or perhaps early winter on a warmer day.

While learning an ancestor is left handed  is not a major genealogical find, it does give us an interesting detail about her. Esther died as a young mother and over the years any detail discovered about her has enriched the limited memories of her children – my grandfather and his sister.

Learning to examine – really examine up close – our ancestors’ photographs helps us learn the details of their lives.

4 Steps To Finding Hidden Clues In Old Family Photos

Candid photos are great for finding fun details about a family or an individual. We find them at their more relaxed moments. Unfortunately, we often overlook those slightly out of focused probable “mistakes” in the family photo collection.

These are the steps I use when evaluating my family photographs, which I do frequently! Often I find a new clue or insight revealed.

Pull out one of your family photos and follow along with my steps:

1.Scan the photo and use a photo editing software such as Vivid-Pix to sharpen details if needed. Vivid-Pix is my go-to when I need to edit and clean up my old photos! [Find my Vivid-Pix tutorial here.]

candid photo of 1940'sfamily reunion with many people with food table and old house in background
Howard Family Reunion ~1945

2. Look closely at at who is in the photograph. Is there one person you are particularly interested in? Who are they talking to or sitting with? What is their posture conveying? What are they wearing? Do you notice a particular piece of jewelry? What is the person doing in the photograph? Are they working? Playing?

Black and white image of Ammie Howard
Ammie Howard – The Woman in Charge

Here is the woman in charge!  Notice her posture. Ammie is standing back  surveying the scene making sure everything is as it should be.

3. Why was the photograph taken? Is a special event such as a family reunion taking place? 

Close up of family reunion food table from the 1940's

The above photograph was taken in the 1940’s at a family reunion. This reunion was held each year in honor of the patriarch’s birthday. Look closely at the food on the table. Zooming in on the food, I discovered my family liked traditional southern foods of fried chicken, white sandwich bread, pickles and cakes….lots of cakes. [Maybe that’s where I got my sweet tooth from!]

4. Look at the background. Are there buildings in the background? Was the photo taken on a porch?  Can the building or structure be identified? Is it a family home? What type of house or structure is it? Was it well kept or in need of repair? 

Close up of Howard house during 1940's family reunion with multiple people in foreground

Answers to these questions can indicate a family’s socioeconomic status. This photo was taken at the back of the family patriarch’s house (he’s the balding man wearing a suit), and the house seems to be in need of repairs. That is consistent with other facts learned about the family’s economic situation.

Pull out your ancestors’ photos, get a good light and magnifying glass (like this one), and see what you can discover in the details of your photographs.

Interested in learning more about old family photos and how to use them in your genealogy research? Check out my other family photo related posts:

🖼Need to identify who is actually in those old family photos? Check out my e-book Identifying Your Ancestor In That Photograph  – Strategies to Analyze & Determine Who Is In Your Family Photographs.

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12 Comments

  • Nancy Teachey

    I noticed that Esther was left handed years ago. Michael is left handed and,like Esther,there is nothing about his writing that indicates that he is left handed. I don’t know of any other family members that are left handed. Since Hattie is holding the stick with her left hand, I wonder if she wrote left handed also.

  • LisaL

    Thanks, Nancy! I hadn’t considered Hattie might have been left handed, too. I’m going back through her photographs and see if there’s any indication.

      • LisaL

        Ken, I have no idea who was standing behind Ammie. I see the hand, I just can’t see enough to know who is behind her. I’m going to have to circulate that photo through the family again and see if anyone has any ideas.

  • Barbara Allen

    The woman and child in the center of the picture look extraordinarily like my mother-in-law, Ruth Bingham Allen and her daughter, Patricia May Allen. Patty was born in 1941. They lived mostly in Illinois, but briefly in Detroit.

    • LisaL

      That’s actually my grandmother and my mother and was taken in the mid-1940’s in rural Lee County, North Carolina. To my knowledge we do not have any relations in Illinois. Interestingly, I can tell you the names Allen and May were common surnames in that area of NC at one time (might still be). Both Allen and May(s) appear as middle names for several generations. Do you have any lines back into NC?

  • NancyHoppe

    I met my paternal birth aunt right before she passed in a nursing home. She told me to get some pictures of hers being kept at her neighbor’s apartment. My birth father was an artist so figured they were his paintings. I ended up with 3 oval framed oil portraits from the 1800’s and one B&W photo of two women on a porch. My aunt passed before I acquired these items. She was the last remaining relative on my father’s side. I think I have the paintings identified but I have no clue about the photo. I do know it’s not her mom or sisters but it must have been important to her for her to give to her neighbor for safe keeping when she had to move into the nursing home. All of my relatives on my birth father’s side are deceased so I have no one to ask. Any suggestions? Thank you.

    • LisaL

      Try uploading it one of the orphan photo websites like DeadFred.com. Also, if you know the county/state where the individuals might have lived, you can reach out to local genealogical and historical societies to see if anyone recognized them or has information on that family line.

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