Old Family Photos

How To Recognize Your Ancestor’s Antique Wedding Photo?

Do you have an antique wedding photo of your ancestors hiding in your collection of old family photos? Learn how to recognize it!

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 antique wedding photos. While I knew who was in the photos, they sat for years as unrecognized wedding photos.

I failed to analyze the clues hidden in those photos. I also did not understand the history of old family photos as well as I should. That was perhaps my biggest mistake!

Pin with antique photo of bride in white dress and groom in tux. Red box with white text reading Your Ancestor's Wedding Photograph

Would YOU recognize your ancestor’s antique 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 large, bulky and too cumbersome to easily 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

Another thought to consider is that brides did not always wear what we think of as the traditional white bridal gown. In early photographs and weddings, a fancy white dress was worn to symbolize 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. As my grandmother told me, a new dress to wear once was simply not in her family’s 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 photography 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 to ensure a good photo.

Black and white photo of bride and groom sitting and bride holding bouquet and parent behind them.

 Taking photos by the general population grew in popularity with the introduction of the Brownie camera in the early 1900’s.  Family and friends became additional sources of wedding photos.

Characteristics of Early Wedding Photographs

Early antique 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 awkward. 

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? 

Spend time analyzing the individuals and details of their posture and expressions. [I use Vivid-Pix to enhance and zoom in on the details of a photograph.]

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

Black and white 1938 wedding photo of Anita Carr Talbott

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! Notice the corsage. That is the only addition she made to her attire for the wedding day.

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, and I still do not know.

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 stated she was actually quite excited for her wedding day.

Black and white 1883 cabinet card photo 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.) Also, notice Clara’s hand on Will’s shoulder. She does not appear to be wearing a wedding band.

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 cannot be certain.  

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

Colorized 1938 wedding photo of Cecile White Howard

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. Notice Cecile does have a wedding ring on her left hand prominently displayed.

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. 

Newspaper article of Talbott-Richardson wedding taking place in Halifax County, VA.

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 sure 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

Now it is your turn. Pull out your old family photos. Do you suspect you have an antique wedding photograph among them? Share your ancestor’s wedding photograph in the comments below.

Other Posts on Old Family Photos You May Find of Interest:

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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! 🙂

  • Jean

    Hello, I’m enjoying your website. As happens in families from time to time, I learned that my paternal grandfather was not liked by my grandmothers side. My grandmother died 8 years after her marriage in Toronto in 1911, my Dad was adopted out, and my grandfather eventually disappeared, so I don’t know what became of him and online records are mostly unavailable for this recent period. My cousin has shared a wedding photo she had of my grandparents but her ancestors had torn out my grandfather from the picture. I’d love to know how if photography shops hold archives of their old photoshoots, so I’d be able to find the complete photo.

    • LisaL

      Jean, some photography shops might have their own copies or records. If it still exists, check with them. If not, check with local archives – sometimes they end up there.

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