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Steps in Identifying Old Photographs

We now live in a time where a vast many resources exist that can help us identify and date old photographs. Yes, it's difficult when there is not a name on the back of the photo, but it is not impossible. The following are some steps to consider in identifying your old photos.


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A few years back, I was involved in selling scrapbook supplies. A woman I knew who was also involved in the same scrapbook company told me about a collection of old photos she had inherited from her parents who had long since passed away. My friend explained to me that no matter how hard she tried, she could not figure out who the people were in these photographs. No names were printed on the back, no familiar faces looked back at her so she did what she felt was her only reasonable option, she threw them away.

Now, after I picked myself off the floor, I tried to explain to her that there were ways to identify photos and perhaps in the future opportunities would arise that would help her figure out these long lost family members.

We now live in a time where a vast many resources exist that can help us identify and date old photographs. Yes, it's difficult when there is not a name on the back of the photo, but it is not impossible. The following are some steps to consider in identifying your old photos:


Besides a name written on the back of a photo, there are several identifiers that can help you in your quest. Some things to look for in a photo are:

  • Photographic Process
  • Costume
  • Details
  • Location
  • Events
  • Resemblance
  • Photographer

Photographic Process

When you look at the photo, one way to date its origin is by determining the photographic process that was used to create it. We've all heard terms like Cartes de Visite, Cabinet Cards, and Daguerreotypes. It can be difficult to commit to memory these various photographic processes and when they were used. I find it helpful to use a web site as a reference point. Photo Tree,, is a website dedicated to 19th century photography. This site includes an easy to understand history of 19th century photographic techniques, along with photographic examples. Photo Tree has an archive of 1,000 photos that you can use to compare your photo and help yourself figure out the date a photograph was taken. Edin Photo, , is a web site that includes a very detailed description of all types of photography processes.


In articles about dating photographs one of the ways to identify them, which is emphasized time and time again, is by looking at your ancestor's costume (or clothing). While this is one technique that can be implemented, you never want to solely date a picture by the clothing that people are wearing. One reason is that people did not purchase clothing as often as we do now. Your ancestor may have only owned one nice dress or suit that was used for all sorts of occasions. Perhaps they did not own a nice suit of clothing and borrowed one from the photographer. Men's clothing styles did not change as often as women's. Some men's hats have been in style for over 100 years. Dating a photo based on a man's hat can lead you to incorrect results.

With that said, clothing is one resource for you in identifying the age of a portrait but it is not the only source. To learn more about clothing styles through the years consult, Fashion Era at Fashion-Era. This website has drawings of fashions, fashion history and recommended books. Likewise, The Costumer's Manifesto at includes drawings and pictures from different eras. Dover Publications has quite a few books on everything from clothing to hats to military uniforms. You can check out titles they have available at


What details might help you date that family photo? What props are included in the photograph? Was the picture taken in a photographer's study? If so you may be able to help date a photo by what photographer's props are visible. Photography studios used painted backgrounds after 1840. Certain types of scenes were popular in different time periods; for example, frontier scenes and landscapes were popular in the 19th century. Some props may have been the photographers, like books, so don't assume that because your ancestor was posing next to it that it was theirs. Photos taken during the Civil War may have a tax revenue stamp on it.

Jewelry might help date a photo especially in cases where men are wearing fraternal organization medals. The web site Fraternalism in America at includes information on fraternal order jewelry. One photo of my great-great grandfather was finally identified by enlarging it to see the detail of the lapel pins he was wearing. Once it was enlarged I could tell that the pins had the initials "S.A." on them. My hunch was that he might have been a member of the Salvation Army. Checking out various web sites on the Salvation Army and comparing pictures of Salvation Army members for sale on ebay helped me identify the photo and my ancestor.


Sometimes a photo may be taken in front of a house or at an event. Street signs may provide a small detail in a photograph. House numbers might hold a clue. Use photo editing software programs to enlarge photos so that you can see that detail. Use online maps such as Google or Mapquest to help pinpoint a location. Google maps has a feature where you can look at a "hybrid " map, one which shows a satellite image and transposes the street names on it.


Does your photo document an event? Perhaps a holiday or a wedding is depicted. Don't get confused by judging events of yesteryear with how they are celebrated now. For example, it is a more modern custom for brides to wear white. Brides used to wear their best dress or even a "loaner" from a family member. Even photographs of brides I have from the 1930's and 1940's are not in a traditional white wedding gown to which we are now accustomed.


One way to identify ancestors in photos is by comparing them with other photographs you have that are identified. Family resemblance can help a lot in identifying photographs, but just like my warning about solely using clothing to identify, don't just use resemblance. With the photo of my Salvation Army ancestor, I initially compared it to photos of other family members. By doing this I found a striking resemblance to my ancestor's uncle. I assumed that instead of my 2nd great grandfather it was really my 3rd great grandfather. But further clues led to the correct identification.

The web site My Heritage at MyHeritage is in the beta testing stages now but its face recognition software will be a tool that can be used to help you identify ancestors. One of the ways that it is able to help you is by "sophisticated algorithms that facilitate the use of face recognition . . . it recognizes faces in different stages of people's lives and uses additional photo meta-data such as dates and places to improve the accuracy of face recognition." Right now that software is being used to show you what celebrity you resemble, but eventually it will be used to help you figure out the identify of that ancestor in the unidentified photo.


A cabinet card or Cartes de Visite with a photographer's name embossed on the front or back can be a bonus in dating a photograph. City directories can be used to pinpoint years that the photographer was in business. A book that can help in your search is Directory of Photographers in the United States 1888 & 1889 and Canada 1889 by Diane VanSkiver Gagel. Heritage Books. 2002. Other places to look for photographer information include Cyndi's List ( and local archives. Various sources can be found to let you know more about a photography studio, including books written about photography in a state such as Ohio Photographers 1839-1900 by Diane VanSkiver Gagel, Carl Mautz Publishing 1998, or in a city like the monograph for sale by the San Bernardino County, California Museum entitled Elias F. Everitt and the Redlands Photographic Studio 1897-1924. Check out state and county archives, museums, public and university libraries for information on photography studios in your place of interest.

Oh, the Possibilities

So many possibilities exist to help the genealogist identify photographs. The web site Dead Fred ( helps reunite pictures with family members by posting them on their web site and indexing them according to name, place, or photographic studio. Books abound that help you learn to identify photographs, some of these are, Forensic Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick, Phd. Rice Book Press. 2005. She also has a web site at Forensic Genealogy; Dating Old Photographs and More Dating Old Photographs available through Family Chronicle at; and Uncovering your Ancestry through Family Photographs by Maureen Taylor. Betterway Books. 2000.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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