5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs

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Identify the Type of Photograph

Three Generations of Women Looking at Photo Album
LWA/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Old family photographs are a treasured part of any family history. Many of them, unfortunately, do not come neatly labeled on the back with names, dates, people or places. The photographs have a story to tell...but about whom?

Solving the mystery faces and places in your old family photographs requires knowledge of your family history, combined with good old fashioned detective work. When you're ready to take on the challenge, these five steps will get you started in style.

Identify the Type of Photograph

Not all old photographs are created alike. By identifying the type of photographic technique used to create your old family photos, it is possible to narrow down the time period when the photograph was taken. If you have trouble identifying the type yourself, a local photographer may be able to help.
Daguerreotypes, for example, were popular from 1839 to about 1870, while cabinet cards were in use from about 1866 to 1906.

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Who Was the Photographer?

Check both the front and the back of the photograph (and its case if it has one) for a photographer's name or imprint. If you're lucky, the photographer's imprint will also list the location of his studio. Check city directories for the area (found in libraries) or ask the members of local historical or genealogical society to determine the time period the photographer was in business. You may also be able to find a published directory of photographers working in your specific region, such as Directory of Pennsylvania Photographers, 1839-1900 by Linda A. Ries and Jay W. Ruby (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999) or this online list of Early St. Louis Photographers maintained by David A. Lossos. Some photographers were only in business for a few years, so this information may help you really narrow down the time period when a photograph was taken.

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Check Out the Scene & Setting

The setting or backdrop for a photograph may be able to provide clues to location or time period. Early photographs, especially those taken prior to the advent of flash photography in 1884, were often taken outside, to take advantage of natural light. Often the family may appear posed in front of the family house or automobile. Look for the family house or other family possessions in other photos for which you do have names and dates. You can also use household items, cars, street signs and other background items to help determine the approximate date a photograph was taken.

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Focus on Clothing & Hairstyle

Photographs taken during the 19th century were not the casual snapshots of today but, generally, formal affairs where the family got dressed up in their "Sunday best." Clothing fashions and hairstyle choices changed from year to year, providing yet another basis for determining the approximate date when the photograph was taken. Pay special attention to waist size and styles, necklines, skirt lengths and widths, dress sleeves and fabric choices. Women's clothing styles tend to change more frequently than men, but men's fashions can still be helpful. Menswear is all in the details, such as coat collars and neckties.

If you're new to identifying clothing features, hairstyles, and other fashion features, begin by comparing fashions from similar photos for which you have dates. Then, if you need further help, consult a fashion book such as The Costumer's Manifesto, or one of these other guides to clothing fashions and hairstyles by time period.

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Match the Clues Up With Your Knowledge of Family History

Once you've been able to narrow down a location and time period for an old photograph, your knowledge of your ancestors comes into play. Where did the photo come from? Knowing which branch of the family the photo was passed down from can narrow down your search. If the photograph is a family portrait or group shot, try to identify other people in the photo. Look for other photos from the same family line which include recognizable details — the same house, car, furniture, or jewelry. Talk to your family members to see if they recognize any of the faces or features of the photograph.

If you still aren't able to identify the subjects of your photo, create a list of the ancestors which meet all of the possible criteria, including approximate age, family line, and location. Then cross off any people who you have been able to identify in other photos as different individuals. You may find you only have one or two possibilities left!

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Your Citation
Powell, Kimberly. "5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/identifying-people-in-old-family-photographs-1422272. Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). 5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/identifying-people-in-old-family-photographs-1422272 Powell, Kimberly. "5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/identifying-people-in-old-family-photographs-1422272 (accessed March 24, 2023).