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    « Photo Choices in Your Family History Book | Main | Tools for Preserving Your Digital Family History Files »

    Identifying People in Old Family Photographs

    Are you a mystery fan? I am. I love to watch detectives on the trail of clues, unraveling the past before my eyes.

    Old family photos can offer the mystery-lovers among us a chance to become the detective. We’ve all got at least a few of those family photos that are interesting and probably important, but they feature people we simply can’t identify. It’s frustrating, but don’t throw the photos back into a box and bury them back in the garage. Here are some tools to help you discover your mysterious ancestors.

    Kimberly Powell on offers 5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs. Her suggestions:

    • Identify the Type of Photograph – Daguerreotypes were popular from 1839-1870, Cabinet Cards from 1866-1906, and no Polaroid photo could have been taken before 1948 (when the Polaroid camera was invented).
    • Who Was the Photographer? – Check the front, back and frame or cover of the photo for the photographer’s name and possibly location. Local city directories, libraries, and historical or genealogical societies can help you track when the photographer was in business.
    • Check Out the Scene or Setting – Clues to the time or location may appear when the family is posed in front of the family automobile or home. The Family Chronicles site on Dating Old Photographs suggests that it is often possible to establish the date by carefully comparing with other pictures of known date. For example, note details in the painted canvas background used for a studio shot. The drapes or woodwork in the scene may be clues to the photo’s date.

     Visit Family Chronicles Dating Old Photographs to see how to date this photo.

    • Focus on Clothing or Hairstyle – The Costume Detective website helps you to analyze costumes, fashion, hats, and jewelry to achieve a date within five years of the date the photo was taken. The Costumer’s Manifesto site offers numerous links for dating old family photographs, using fashion history and styles of photo-mounts. It promises, “These links are provided so you can teach yourself to do this for yourself.”

    Visit The Costume Detective to see how to date this photo.

    • Match Up the Clues with Your Knowledge of Family History – Once you’ve identified the time and place of the photo, use your knowledge of ancestors to begin trying to identify who is in the picture.

    Click here to read Kimberly Powell’s 5 Steps for Identifying People in Old Family Photographs

    Click here to visit Family Chronicle’s Dating Old Photographs

    Click here to visit the Costume Detective

    Click here visit the Costumer’s Manifesto


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    Reader Comments (5)


    I have an old photo album dated from 1887. I don't know very many of the people in the photo album, but I know most of the pictures are family members. Is there a website out there where one could post a picture or two. This way viewers could comment on dating, identifying what type of occasion might have triggered the picture to be takenand and help identifying who might be in them.

    Regards, Jim
    Hidden Genealogy Nuggets

    Jul 15, 2011 at 7:06AM | Unregistered CommenterJim Sanders

    Some good ideas here. Thanks.


    Jul 30, 2011 at 10:27PM | Unregistered CommenterJames

    Does anyone who is interested in this sort of thing know of any professionals in the US who are able to identify a person from one picture of them as a young man, to another picture of them older. I am working on a book about the life of one person and I have a number of pictures which I can not be sure are of him. I need someone who is really good at facial recognition, and through comparison, make an educated guess that two pictures, taken at very different times, are the same person. Thanks for any help that can be provided, Pamela in Boston

    Apr 12, 2012 at 8:07AM | Unregistered CommenterPamela Skewes-Cox

    Thank you for your work. I really appreciate it because I'm working with old photos restoration.
    Photo repair

    Oct 27, 2013 at 1:56PM | Unregistered CommenterPhoto restoration

    We're glad to hear that the information was helpful to you.

    Oct 29, 2013 at 8:56PM | Registered CommenterNan Barnes

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