top of page

Identify Your Old Photographs - part 3

In my last post, I discussed how to begin identifying old family photographs by dating the picture. Noting the type of photography and type of print, can give you a date range for the creation of that photograph.

In this post, I want to point out some clues that will help you narrow down who the individuals are in your family photographs.

First, you need a baseline - your family tree.

I suggest creating a family tree using or another reputable website or computer program. Do not add anything suggested to you from strangers as you risk it being full of errors. I will give a tutorial in the future about building your family tree using Ancestry and other online tools. For the sake of this baseline family tree, use only facts from interviews with immediate family and documents you have in your possession such as already printed trees, family bibles, marriage, birth and death certificates. Make sure to collect not only names but place and date of birth and place and date of death for each individual, if known.

This family tree was created using my canvas tree maker in It is nice to be able to have images with the individuals on your tree.

This is a fan family tree chart. I love fan charts because you can fit more generations on one page. You can print out a blank fan chart here.

If you have a basic family tree with names and dates listing all generations at least back to the early 1800s, you should be able to narrow down who the individual is in the picture using process of elimination. Refer to my previous post about dating the photograph based on the type of photography. If you have a picture of a woman on a cabinet card (produced from about 1873 - 1903) for instance, and she appears to be over the age of 50 in the picture, then you can rule out anyone born after 1853.

Having that family tree, even with 'holes' in it, will be a huge help to you in discovering who the individual is in your mystery photograph. Once you have your family tree filled out, make sure to attach any known images of the person. Keep in mind that as people age, looks and hairstyles change. If you are building a family tree online with a website like Ancestry, attaching photographs is easy in their 'gallery' for each individual. Once you see what ancestors have no known image owned by you or your immediate family, you can begin to 'guess' who the person in that photograph is.

The next step seems obvious, but it needs to be said. Look for the photographer's stamp or name on the photograph. It will be embossed on the front or stamped on the back. Visite cards, cabinet cards and sometimes postcards often had the photographer's name or company and many give the city and state as well.

This will further help you identify your ancestor, in two ways. If the picture says "Paley Bros" of "New York" then you can search online for information regarding what years that photographer was in business. You may also find what years they operated from that address. I once narrowed a photograph down to a date within five years, because the photographer only operated for a short time from its first location, which was the address stamped on the back of the photograph.

Secondly, knowing what photographer took the picture and where that photographer was located can help you identify the town or at least the area your ancestor is from. If you have narrowed the identity of the individual in your image down to Great Aunt Linda from Maine or Great Grandma Eleanor from Southern New Jersey, and the image was taken in Philadelphia (close to Southern New Jersey), then it is more likely that it is Great Grandma Eleanor. Further proof would be required to make an absolute identity, but you would be one step closer.

Finally, if there is writing on the back but it is vague, use handwriting analysis to help you determine who that ancestor is. For example, if all that is written is 'Father' on the back of the image, but you don't know who wrote that you can compare handwriting with known samples. Great Grandma Mary's letter that you have kept will show you her distinctive 'F' and you can compare it to the 'F' in the word 'Father' written on the back of the picture. I have found that what is stamped or written on the back of photographs can be just as revealing as the front!

These and other clues further help you in solving your family photograph mysteries.

13 views0 comments


bottom of page