Would You Recognize Your Ancestor’s Wedding Photo?

Would you recognize your ancestor’s wedding photo in your collection of old family photographs?

It’s time for another one of my confessions!  🙂

In the boxes (yes, I have multiple boxes of old family photographs) sit three wedding photographs. While I knew who was in the photos, they sat for years as unrecognized wedding photos. I failed to analyze the clues hiden in the photos. I also did not understand the history of old family photos as well as I should. 

Would you recognize your ancestor's wedding photo if you saw it? Maybe not.  Learn to recognize the wedding photos in your old family photos.

Would YOU recognize your ancestor’s wedding photograph?

Let’s start with a bit of history first.

Reportedly Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were the first to have their wedding portrait taken in 1854. Actually, their portrait was taken 14 years after their wedding day.  The wedding portrait trend became popular after the royal couple’s photo was taken. 

Between 1885 and 1900 wedding photography’s popularity took off. 

The earlier photographs were studio portraits. The photography equipment was too cumbersome to transport.  Technology also had not advanced to the point of taking candid photographs of the actual wedding event.

Your ancestor's wedding photo may not be easily recognized. Learn clues to recognize the photos of your ancestor's happy day.
Source: Library of Congress

Brides did not always wear what we think of as the traditional white bridal gown. In early photographs and weddings, a fancy white dress symbolized status and wealth and not so much purity.  Wedding gowns were (and still are!) expensive.  White was not a practical color to wear. Easily dirtied and requiring tedious laundering, white was simply not practical or feasible on a bride’s meager budget. 

Often couples would pose before or after the wedding for a portrait in their best clothes or  “Sunday clothes”.  A new dress or their “Sunday best” was sufficient. The addition of a veil or just flowers may be the only “wedding” attire.

In rural farming communities,  spending money on a dress to be worn only once was not practical or prudent. If a new dress or suit was purchased, the intent was the outfit would be worn again.

Wedding photography began to grow in popularity after WWII during a time referred to as the “wedding boom”. The technology had progressed for location shoots to be easier and less expensive than a studio portrait.  Still film could be expensive and photographers would often stage candid shots at the wedding.

 Taking photos by the general population grew in popularity from the introduction of the Brownie camera in the early 1900’s.  Family and friends were also the source of wedding photos.

Characteristics of Early Wedding Photographs

Early wedding photographs from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s were certainly different than today’s wedding photos.

In early photos, couples often look austere. The couple can appear stiff and somber. Often there was no smiling. The couple may or may not be touching. If they are touching such as a hand on a shoulder, the pose may appear stiff and akward. 

Was the couple happy or not?  You might find a few subtle clues in the photo itself. 

  • Is the couple leaning slightly away or towards eacth other?
  • Are rings evident on a couple’s left hand?  A left hand with a ring was frequently prominently displayed in wedding and engagement photographs.   The absence of a ring does not idicate the photograph is not a wedding photo. In the case of my ancestors, the couple could not afford rings early in their married life.
  • Look at those somber expressions. Are they fairly neutral or do you notice pinching about the lips? 
  • Are the hands relaxed or possibly clenched? 

Let’s look at a few examples of wedding photos:

Do you have a wedding photo of your ancestors in your collection? Would you recognize your ancestor's photograph as a wedding photo? (Anita Carr Talbott Wedding 1938 Photo)

This is the 1938 wedding day photograph of my grandmother Anita Carr  who married Arthur Crafton Talbott.  The couple married in South Boston, VA.  This photograph had been in my collection for several years before I asked my grandmother about it. It is one of my favorites of her – I’m loving that hat!

In my last interview with my grandmother before she passed away, I asked her about the photograph.  She took one look at it and stated it was her wedding day picture and she disliked it!

 (Okay…..that confused me.) She never did say why.

The point is she did not wear a traditional white wedding gown.  She said she couldn’t afford one, and the photograph was the only one taken to commemorate the day. Even in 1938, notice her somber expression.  She was actually quite excited for her wedding day.

Do you have a wedding photo of your ancestors in your collection? Would you recognize your ancestor's photograph as a wedding photo? Cabinet Card Wedding Portrait of Clara Holt and William Haley

This is Clara Holt and William Haley posing for an 1883 wedding portrait. The photograph is a cabinet card and was taken in a photographer’s studio. Notice the backdrop behind the couple. (If you follow my blog regularly, you have met Clara and Will in previous posts.)

Notice Clara did not wear a traditional wedding gown. Like many, Clara and Will wore their finest clothes. Perhaps Clara made her dress and/or Will got a new suit. 

I was fortunate to have a distant cousin identify this photograph as their wedding photo. 


Do you have a wedding photo of your ancestors in your collection? Would you recognize your ancestor's photograph as a wedding photo? 1938 Wedding Portrait of Cecile White

Here is one more example of a 1938 wedding photograph.  This is Cecile White of Surry County, NC who married Lester Howard of Guildford County, NC. Like Anita Carr, a fancy dress to be worn only once was not practical or affordable.

How do you determine if a photograph is a wedding photograph or not?

Other sources beyond the photograph itself will provide clues to help you determine if a photograph is a wedding photo or not.

1.Ask your family members. With email and social media, it is easier than ever to share a photograph and ask the history surrounding it. Don’t forget to reach out to close and collateral family members.

2. Search newspaper announcements and society pages. If a wrtie-up about a couple’s wedding made the paper, check for a description of the dress she wore.  You can match the description to the photograph. 

Do you have a wedding photo of your ancestors in your collection? Would you recognize your ancestor's photograph as a wedding photo? 1915 Richardson-Talbott Wedding Announcement


3. Determine the date or time period of the photograph.  Is the photo of the correct time period to even be the wedding photograph for a specific bride or couple? Read more at How to Determine the Date of an Old Family Photograph. Make the photograph is of the correct age to actually be the photograph of a suspected couple.

4. Research marriage records to learn who witnessed and or attended the couple’s wedding. If the photograph has several people in it besides the bride and groom, are the others known members of the wedding party. 

Look closely at your ancestors’ photographs. Do you have a wedding photograph among them? Share your ancestor’s wedding photograph in the comments below.

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  • Anna H.

    Quick question on the Cecile White photo. Do you know anything about that background? Was it exclusive to a place, or was it produced en masse? I have an old family photo in front of a very similar, if not the same background.

    Any info would be appreciated. Thank you!!


    • LisaL

      Anna, This is so interesting! I do not know anything about the background or where the photo was actually taken. Cecile White was from Surry County, NC. She met and married Lester Howard in Greensboro, NC and they married in Danville, VA. I suspect the photograph was taken in Guilford County, NC or possibly in Danville, VA. Would your family photograph have been taken in one of those locations?

      • Anna H.

        I have no idea! I’ll have to do some double checking to be sure. I think they all lived in Georgia and SC. But maybe they visited NC and had a portrait done! 🙂

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