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How to Identify Old Family Photographs

by Karen Frisch

If you think your collection of old photographs of people whom no one recognizes can't be identified, think again. Old photos are filled with clues about their subjects. Photos in attics and cellars, especially those in albums, are likely to be family from earlier generations. Talk to your elderly relatives. Going backwards in time, ask for specifics about each generation---number of children, their gender, height, weight, hair color, the jewelry they wore, their favorite pets, and other identifying marks. Connecting these kinds of clues will help you identify photographs of your ancestors.

Clues to Identifying Old Family Photographs

Show your old family photos to elderly relatives and ask if they recognize the subjects. Even if they don't, they will remember more than you expect. If your father thinks one picture in an album is his grandfather Heinrich from Germany as a young man, write Heinrich's name on the back in pencil with a question mark.

Look at other photos in the same album for facial features similar to Heinrich's. You can learn a lot from black-and-white photos. Study the eyes for shape and brightness, the slant of noses, the angle of mouths and chins. Those with strong resemblances who appear close in age might be your great-grandfather Heinrich's siblings.

Ask relatives for details about Heinrich's life, including his age when he emigrated to America and who came with him. Knowing his parents emigrated at the same time might help you find photos of your great-great-grandparents taken in America. If your relatives know the town where Heinrich was living when he died, you can obtain a copy of his death certificate. Most death certificates from the first half of the 1900s contain birthplaces, names of spouses and parents, and other hard-to-obtain facts.

Setting Heinrich aside temporarily, ask your relatives specific questions about his family, such as the number of siblings he had. Show relatives your pictures, and tell them what you've learned. They might remember stories from Heinrich's day or that he had a tall older sister and a younger one who always wore a cameo brooch. While you have their attention, also ask them about other family members from earlier generations.

Look through the album for people matching these descriptions. If you find a photo of someone who resembles Heinrich with two women, one tall, the other wearing a brooch, it's likely you'll know who they are. Look also for familiar landmarks from the town where Heinrich lived.

In the same album you might find photographs from other countries. Formal portraits with German writing on the cardboard backing might be of Heinrich's relatives who remained in Germany when he emigrated.

Items you will need
  • Old family photos Magnifying glass Tape recorder or notebook and pencil

Tip

  • Acquaint yourself thoroughly with the lives of your ancestors. The more you learn about them, the better equipped you will be to recognize them in photographs. Learn about their pets, hobbies, occupations and religious practices. Many old photos were taken of the subjects standing in front of churches or houses, playing with pets, or engaged in favorite activities. Look also at their clothing. Victorian style is easy to recognize by the hats, sleeves, mustache styles and other details. When you talk with relatives, tape record or write down what they have to say so you'll have a permanent copy of their reminiscences.