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images from our past
what they can tell us

By Deborah K. Millemaci
(return to genealogy)

Some of the most important clues to our family's ancestry lie in the photos that were left behind. The faces, their expressions, the clothing worn, and much more can give us clues to our past. We all have old, long forgotten photographs stored in old albums, boxes and drawers. It's time to open these boxes to see what memories and stories are yet to be told.

When going through your treasures, be sure to look for "keys" that can unlock important clues to your family history. There may be older relatives that can help you identify the people and locations in your photographs, but if this is not possible, here are a few ideas that may help you.

Dates, even just the year, can be compared with other data you have and help zone in on dates you may have on birth, death, or marriage records. Other people shown in these photos also contribute to the dating process because they may include some relatives that you are familiar with. For example, I have some old pictures that belonged to my grandmother. Even though I could see resemblance, I wasn't quite sure who the other persons were, as I was never able to ask my grandmother. But through piecing together clues, I found out years later that they were the brothers and sister of my grandfather.

Old houses, landscapes, buildings, or other backgrounds may help identify the location a photo was taken. Sometimes large group photos were taken outside, and any distinguishing signs, monuments, etc. could provide clues to the photo's origin. It is likely that additional copies of these group pictures were taken and sold to people who posed in the photo. If the photograph was taken near a historical place, this may be documented in public archives of the town.

Also, clothing and hairstyles are ways to obtain approximately when a photo was taken. By looking at clothing design, you can take note of style, length, and any distinguishing features of the apparel worn. I have one photograph I haven't been able to identify as yet, but in researching the clothing worn, I have surmised that this picture was taken in the 1920's.

The woman is wearing a black dress, almost ankle-length, with a white lace collar. A strand of long pearls is draped around her neck, and she is holding a small black clutch purse. Her shoes appear to be two-toned, black toe, and tie at the ankle. It is difficult to determine if she is wearing stockings though. Her hair is pulled back neatly into a bun. The gentleman is wearing a single-breasted dark suit, white shirt, tie, and darks shoes. Also, the background appears to be one that was often used by the photographer. It seems to be a scenic mural with trees nestled near water. Interesting to note here that this photograph was printed on postcard paper, as Cartolina Postale (Carte Postale) is stamped on the back.

Make sure you make note of all the information you find as you have no idea how valuable it will be later on in your research. Once you are able to identify your photographs, be sure to label them, using the information you have collected for each one. It is important to note when labeling photos to use what is called an "archive-safe" pen. These pens can be found in photo and office supply stores. I will discuss the importance of preserving, restoration, and storage of your photos in a future article.

Photographs celebrate families and the special events associated with them. Each one is a part of our family's past that will become part of our future's generations. ©Deborah K. Millemaci - 2002
No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.


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