11 Ways That Historical Photos Provide Clues About Our Ancestors Lives

I have always been mesmerized by my ancestors’ photographs. Just to see what they looked like and to compare their facial features with those of my close relatives has been a very interesting endeavor.

But as I have been able to collect these old photos, I have also been quite interested in the surrounding “information.”  For example, the clothes that they wore; the props in a portrait taken by a professional photographer; the early automobiles that they were sitting in; their homes and the architecture; and even the locations of the beaches and lakes that they visited in their “off time.” All of this information “spoke” to me as a third dimension to understanding the stories of their lives.

And this additional information in these photos can certainly be useful in uncovering the typical date information that we like to document for our genealogy and family history research. These surroundings as depicted in photos can be great clues as to when and where they lived.

So let’s list some of the many ways that a photograph can provide us with important and useful information about our ancestors:

  • Professional Photographer – If a professional photographer took the photos, does his name and location or the name of the studio give us a clue as to the ancestor’s residence?

  • Type of Photo – Daguerreotype?  Tintype? Cabinet card? Can provide you with timing information.

  • Photo Frame – was it in a cardboard frame that often had the photographer’s name and city or address?

  • Clothing – the clothing that was worn can give us great clues as to the date of the photograph and therefore clues for our research.

  • Hair Style – clues about the timing of the photo.

  • Furniture and Props – in a professional photograph – more timing clues.

  • Surrounding information – such as landscape, signs, machinery, and automobiles. This can give you clues as to the location of the photo; in some cases their residence location or where they went on vacation.

  • House Architecture – many photos were taken on the outside of a home. I even have many photos where the house number is included. The architecture of the home can provide some clues as to its location.

  • Gravestone Photo – terrific birth and death date information (although not always accurate) and who the person is buried next to or near can provide additional clues.

  • Writing on the back – many times the name(s) of the folks in the photo were written on the back. But since you don’t know who wrote the names or when they were written, caution should be taken as to their accuracy.

  • Postcards – in the first few decades of the 20th century, special postcards with a photo on the back were mailed. Obviously, the writing in the corresponding part of the card can provide great clues.​

For useful information regarding dating an old photograph – it would be helpful to visit Maureen Taylor’s Photo Detective website. And in the U.K., Jayne Shrimpton. Both have numerous articles and books pertinent to photo analysis.

To find links and other pertinent information on the location of old photos and historical images please visit the Photos page on this website.

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Good Luck and Happy Hunting!

One reply on “11 Ways That Historical Photos Provide Clues About Our Ancestors Lives”

Good tips! We have a mystifying bunch of unidentified photos for one branch of our tree, so this is a favorite topic of mine. (If you wanted, you could write an 11-part series on the tips, caveats, and landmines for each one of your points here!)

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