Hidden Stories in Pictures
by Bob Brooke
There's an old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words. Old family photographs
are worth a million. These frayed and faded mementos may provide clues to names,
dates, and places, as well as occupations and ethnic origins of ancestors.
Finding an old shoebox of family photographs may, for many genealogists, be equal to
discovering buried treasure. But unless all contain some written caption, it's often
hard to tell just who these people really are.
Let's begin with dating. If there's no other way to tell how old a photo is, it can
be compared with others that appear to come from the same time period. If there are
many pictures that are mysterious, the genealogist can choose a few with greater
interest. Perhaps there's a
family member who may be able to identify the unknown people.
A photograph's subjects help date them. The clothing and hair styles worn by the
people can be compared with pictures in books. Other subjects that may be helpful
include cars, household appliances, and the appearance of familiar landmarks, such as
buildings and bridges. All of these can give clues about the date the picture was
A magnifying glass can help identify jewelry or minute details on clothing. Someone
in the family to whom the photos belong may still have the clothes in the picture, or
a ring, pin, or necklace. Jewelry may be inscribed with dates and initials. An old
trunk in a grandparent?s attic may contain the very dress seen in a photograph.
What objects are in the photos? Maybe the person in the photo is holding something,
or perhaps an object lies on a nearby chair or table. Objects are good clues. People
usually have themselves photographed with things that are important to them. Perhaps
a family member remembers when a particular object was purchased.
How are the people posed in the photo? Are they standing or seated? Can a person's
complete face or only one side of it be seen? Photography was invented in the early
1800s, but film wasn?t invented until the 1880s. Before the 1880s, photographers used
wet or dry plates made of metal or glass on which to take pictures. These plates had
to be exposed to light for a long time so that images could form on the plates. Long
exposures made poses difficult to hold, so people often posed with their elbows
resting on the back of a chair or a hand resting on a railing. People in these
photos, therefore, look very formal and seldom smile.
Photographs aren't merely pieces of paper. They're chemical compositions, usually
coated with gelatin and silver, which can be harmed by light, air, or dust. For that
reason, they need to be protected.
Old photographs must be handled with care. Oil or dirt from fingers can ruin photos,
so they should be touched only by the corners with clean hands. Thin white cotton
gloves, sold in photo stores, should be used to handle negatives. Likewise, old
photos should be kept out of temperature extremes. They shouldn't be stored in an
attic or basement where it?s hot or damp.
Once a genealogist identifies a photograph, it should be labeled on the back. The
best way to label a photo is with a self-stick label. The information should be
written on the label with a thin waterproof Sharpie Marker found in office supply
stores. It's important to wait a few seconds to let the ink dry thoroughly before
applying the label to the back of the photo.
Photos shouldn't be stored one on top of the other. This is especially important if
anything has been written on the back. Ink, even the waterproof kind, can come off
and ruin them. If they must be stacked, acid-free paper should be placed between
Also, old photographs should never be fixed with clear tape of any kind. It will
eventually dry out and crack and leave a residue. In addition, old photos shouldn?t
be glued into books, attached with paper clips or bunched together with rubber
If a researcher plans to mail photographs to relatives for identification, it's a
good idea to make copies of them. This may be done on a copy machine using the
darkest setting or by using a scanner and a computer. A note, explaining what
information is being sought as well as when the picture was taken and where, should
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