By George G. Morgan
In "Along Those Lines . . ." this week, I want to talk about some of the detective methods you can use to identify the people in some of those unlabeled photographs.
Family Get-Togethers and Interviews
The most obvious way to help identify the people in old photographs is to ask your older relatives. The upcoming holidays can provide a great opportunity to bring people together and discuss "the olden days." While you have aunts, uncles and grandparents together, you might want to consider setting some time aside to look at old pictures. Your relatives can help you identify the people in the pictures, where they were taken and the occasion.
In other cases, you might consider carefully making a copy of a questionable photograph and sending it to a relative and asking their help in identifying the subjects. A self-addressed, stamped envelope can encourage a response. Remember that old photographs can be light-sensitive and that photocopying can damage some photographs. Therefore, if you have a question about a specific photograph, you might want to seek advice from a professional photographer before you make a copy.
Using Type of Photograph to Determine Timeframe
Part of the detective work in identifying people in photographs is to determine the age of the photograph itself. For instance, there are a number of types of older photograph types. Your job is to determine what type it is: Daguerreotype (image on copper sheet, 1839 to 1860s); Ambrotype (image on glass, 1854 to 1865); tintype (image on black iron sheet, sometimes tinted, 1856 to 1930s); carte de visite (1860 to 1880s); and cabinet card (mid-1860s to early 1900s). A Web site with an excellent primer on the subject is at http://www.classyimage.com/picdate.htm.
Using Clothing to Determine Timeframe of Photographs
The age of a photograph can often be approximated by evaluating the clothing worn by the subjects. Photographic portraits were special occasions, often calling for posing in one's best, most fashionable attire. Several books on the subject may help you evaluate the costumes of the subjects of your photographs and help you approximate the timeframe. These include:
Dalrymple, Priscilla Harris. American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1991.
Gernsheim, Alison. Victorian and Edwardian Fashion: A Photographic Survey. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1982.
Olian, Joanne, ed. Victorian and Edwardian Fashions from 'LA Mode Illustree. New York, Dover Publications, Inc., 1998.
You might also want to check for other books at your library regarding the photographic history of fashions in the location where your ancestors lived.
Comparisons of Photographs
Some photographs in the collection I just received are labeled. My great-grandparents, Green Berry HOLDER and Ansibelle Penelope SWORDS, for instance, married in on 27 December 1866 and produced 12 children. The most exciting photograph of the lot is a family portrait taken on the front porch of the family home in Rome, GA, after the turn of the century. The children are all grown, ranging in age between 16 and 33. I easily recognized my grandmother's young image in the picture, and can easily determine who are my great-grandparents. The images of my grandmother's 11 siblings are a different story, however. Although I know all of their names and dates of birth, how can I determine which of these people is whom?
Comparing other pictures can sometimes be the answer. In this case, there is another picture of the six daughters which has been labeled, "The Misses Holder," and has their names (top and bottom rows, left to right). Being the same vintage as the family portrait, I can now identify all six of the daughters in the picture. There are other unlabeled photographs of some of the individual sisters, and by comparing the faces with other labeled photographs I can now identify - - and label - - these previously unidentified images.
Now, what about the six brothers? I am not as fortunate here. There are only a few odd photographs of these men, and these are generally unlabeled. There are some photographic postcards in this collection made and postmarked in 1902-1903 as one of the brothers, his sister, and his wife traveled to Arizona for his health. They are poor quality and require examination under a strong magnifying glass, but they do reveal the identity of one of the brothers. The other five brothers will require some additional research.
Another tip-off for the brothers are wedding bands. I happen to know the marriage dates of all these brothers. Therefore, if I can see the left hands of some of the brothers, I can categorize them as married or unmarried. Since the convention at the time was for married men to wear wedding bands, this may help me narrow the identification process. It isn't a certainty, mind you, but it may help.
Sometimes an examination of the subject's physical attributes will suggest a resemblance to another family member. Eyes, nose, ears, mouth, teeth, height, hair shade (tone/color), complexion tone and other physical traits may help you connect one photograph with another family unit. This is never a foolproof method, of course, but always view an unidentified photograph with the question in mind, "Does this person remind me of someone else?"
Making the Case for Good Detective Work
Working with photographs involves being open-minded and attentive to details. Sometimes, by developing hypotheses and carefully testing them, you may be able to improve your possibilities of identifying the subject in an unlabeled photograph. The age of photograph, markings on the photograph, how it is mounted or framed, the apparel worn by the subject, family resemblance, comparisons with other photographs and other clues may take you well on the way to making that important identification. It may take some time, but it is certainly worth the effort.
Take advantage of the family gatherings this holiday season to ask your older relatives' help with photograph identification. In the meantime, I'll be doing the same work on the HOLDER family, and enjoying every minute of it!
Copyright 2000, MyFamily.com. All rights reserved. George G. Morgan is a proud member of the Council of Genealogy Columnists. He would like to hear from you at email@example.com but, due to the volume of e-mail received, he is unable to answer every e-mail message received. Please note that he cannot assist you with your individual research. Visit George's Web site at http://ahaseminars.com/atl for information about speaking engagements. George is also the author of The Genealogy Forum on America Online which is available in the Ancestry Online Store.