Looking at Our Ancestors

by Ruby Coleman

Everybody has photographs, most of which are unidentified. They open doors to our research and put faces on our ancestors.

Look closely at the photograph and on a paper jot down your ideas. The following are guides for what to look for in old photographs.

  • inventory of contents, such as background, people, houses, animals, scenery (physical objects in photograph)
  • what the photograph tells you (conclusions from the contents)
  • what the people are doing (interactions, expressions, emotions)
  • approximate time photograph was taken (look for clues in the setting)
  • inferred relationships from the photograph
  • message of the photograph (your personal feelings when looking at the photograph)
  • name and location of photographer or studio
  • writing on the front or back of the photograph
  • any small numbers on the photograph that will link it to a photographic log kept by the photographer

A photograph in my collection is identified by name, but no date. Fortunately the little boy is standing beside an old vehicle whose license plate clearly shows the date 1926 and state of Wyoming on it. Another shows a man in a police uniform with a pistol in his hand, thus opening doors for investigating employment records.

The location of the photographer or studio does not necessarily mean your ancestor lived in that town. Photographers had traveling studios and would often travel around taking photographs which were then pasted on to cards that had their studio information. Your ancestor may have made a trip to a larger community to shop, attend a function and have photographs taken. Certainly the studio name and location is a good clue for beginning your research in those areas.

It is fun to scan and incorporate photographs into our family history. If you are interested in having photographs and images within your genealogical database, look for genealogical software that supports the multimedia functions. Storing photographs on your hard drive is risky plus it takes up a large amount of memory. Once your photographs are scanned, you can catalog them then burn them onto CDs for more permanent storage.

Photographs add to our genealogical research and knowledge. We enjoy looking at them and retrieving clues from them. However, many have no information pertaining to the person(s) in them, the location or date the photograph was taken. The following are helpful guidelines to use when dating photographs.

The earliest known photograph taken in North America was in October or November 1839. It was a self portrait by Robert Cornelius. Your photographs will not date prior to that date.

Daguerreotype - 1839-1860 - oldest of commercially made photographs shiny, mirror like appearance; sometimes appears positive, sometimes negative depending upon the angle it is held and viewed; silver surface on copper plate; originally enclosed in a case for protection.

Ambrotype - 1854-1863; negative image on glass; appears positive because of coating of red or black lacquer applied to the back; sometimes enclosed in a case with black paper or cloth behind it; unless removed from case cannot be distinguished from tintypes.

Tintype or Ferrotype - 1856-1915; sized from 3/4 inch to 8x10 or larger; not shiny and not on glass; an image on thin metal; early ones are found in cases and after that usually in a paper frame; formal poses indicate an earlier time period; tintypes taken in great numbers at amusement parks and fairs.

Cartes De Visite - 1860-1910; easily determined because of the 2 1/2"x4 1/4"; first paper photographs; visiting cards; sometimes placed in albums; shiny toward later period of use; discontinued around 1890 in the United States but continued until later in Scandinavia and the British Isles; revenue stamps on the back indicate 1864-1866 (taxed from 1 September 1864-1 August 1866); square corners indicate 1860-1881; rounded corners from 1870-1891.

Cabinet Photograph - 1875-1910; sized at about 4 1/4" x 6 1/2"; found in albums, cabinet frames or loose; pasted on a heavy card board; if oval shaped pasted on the card or if surrounded by dark gray or black mount card, usually dates after 1900.

Crayon or Charcoal Photographs - ca 1890-ca 1910; copies and enlargements of earlier photographs, enhanced by touching them with color or charcoal.

Postcard Photograph - 1905-1930; very popular; sometimes mailed or collected and shared; check for information on the reverse side plus postmark.

Rectangular Kodak Photographs - 1896+; Eastman Kodak Co. introduced a small hand held camera in 1888.

Color Photographs - 1908-present; early ones susceptible to fading and of poor quality; sometimes last no longer than two generations. Color photographs in family collections usually do not date before the 1940s.

Color Movies & Slides - began in 1935; longer life and quality than early color photographs; can be reproduced in other media; first home movie camera marketed by Eastman Kodak Company in 1923.

Polaroid Photographs - began in 1947; some fading; quick photographic process.

Video Imaging - began in last quarter of 1900s; good moving image quality; more difficult to duplicate; can easily be shared for viewing.

Digital Camera Images - began in late 1900s; easy, fast photographic process; can be printed by computer, stored in computer or on CD; instant viewing of what has been taken within the camera.

Photographs are priceless treasures and the image key to our past. Look at your ancestors and relatives ... you are part of them.

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