Finding Clues in Old Photographs

The women in the two formal portraits from the late nineteenth century look enough alike to be sisters. Both have dark eyes, a strong chin, and a firm set to the mouth. You remember that your great-grandfather had two sisters who came to America with him. But which sister is which?

Strong resemblances will often tell you what side of the family the subject in a photo is from, but after that you're on your own. You have to rely on clues in the photos themselves to help you learn the identity of the subjects. Family photographs from both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, fortunately, are filled with clues that will aid you in your search.

A solid knowledge of your family is your best ally. Begin by asking elderly relatives specific questions about family members they might have known. Rather than asking what they remember about Aunt Matilda, ask instead how many brothers and sisters Matilda had; whether her hair and eyes were dark or light; how tall she was in relation to her sisters; and if she had any outstanding physical characteristics. The answers will help you recognize Matilda if you should come across her in an old photo.

Once you know the names of family members from earlier generations, public records can also be of help. You might know, for instance, that your great-grandfather came to America from Germany in the 1880s. But did you know that not only did his brother and sisters come with him, but his parents as well? That means that one generation further back left a paper trail with clues that might include names and a specific birthplace in Germany.

Familiarize yourself with the number of children in different generations and their ages in relation to one another. Knowing the birth order will help you recognize your ancestors.

If Uncle Roy tells you Great-Aunt Anna O'Leary was taller and more slender than her sister Mary, it makes it much easier to distinguish between the two in photographs no matter how similar their faces are. If you look carefully you can spot the breadth of a midsection or unusually long legs even if Anna and Mary are in separate pictures.

Look also at the studio imprint on cabinet cards or other types of photographs that have a border. A quick check in a city directory will reveal the years that a photography studio was in business at a given address. This will help you date the photo and might aid in its identification.

Clothing and hairstyles are a great help in dating photographs. Knowing that skirts were full in the Civil War era but became much narrower by the 1880s allows you to pinpoint decades more precisely. The center part popular in 1860s women's hairstyles had given way to a fringe of curls on foreheads twenty years later. A detailed book on costumes or vintage clothing will help you date your photographs with more accuracy.

In outdoor photographs landmarks can be used as clues to determine a location or date. Watch for recognizable sites: familiar streets, distant hills, or historic buildings.

House numbers can give you information as well. If your great- grandmother lived at 77 Sterry Street for a quarter of a century and you have pictures that clearly show the number 77 over the front porch door, you have a good idea whose house it is and even clues to the identity of the subjects.

Old family photos also offer a glimpse of our ancestors' activities, hobbies, and daily concerns. Photographs of your great-grandfather holding a large striped bass, your great-grandmother camping with her sisters, or those of an earlier generation enjoying a picnic at a church outing or cuddling with a pet reveal how your ancestors spent their time. Seeing the proof in photographs is, as they say, worth a thousand words.

-- Born and raised in Rhode Island, Karen Frisch has been an avid reader since childhood when she also developed an interest in writing and drawing. She has traced her lineage back thirty generations to the year 1100 through England, Scotland, Germany, and Wales. A former teacher, she received a Master of Arts in Victorian literature from the University of Rhode Island, with courses at the University of London, and holds undergraduate degrees in English and art from Rhode Island College. She is the host and writer of Pet Talk , an award- winning cable television show on pets, and she is active with Volunteer Services for Animals, working to aid homeless animals. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband, a daughter adopted from China, and two dogs.


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