I think it’s safe to say we have all amassed a box of old family photos. I will admit to having multiple bins that I am slowly scanning and tagging with names and dates. But then there’s the other box that holds photos without names scribbled on the back. Or maybe there’s a partial name, let’s say Anne, that you just know is one of the four Annes in your family tree. But which Anne is it?
Old family photographs can hold clues for a genealogy researcher like nothing else. They’re a visual telling of the people in our tree rather than just names and dates. Photos can even help us feel more connected to our ancestors.
Here are a couple of tips to help date your orphaned photos.
The fashions people wore can be great indicators of the period they lived. Clothing and hairstyles can actually date a photo within about five to 10 years. In general, old photos of family members were posed and usually taken by professional photographers. Even when people began to use their own cameras, subjects were often posed for the best shot. Also, people dressed their best for these portraits in new, fashionable garments. Pictures of younger women typically show contemporary style trends. Older women often stick to older or outdated styles.
Here are several sites that can help you put your aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents on the right branches of your family tree.
— University of Vermont (glcp.uvm.edu) has a program that offers a wealth of information about fashions through the decades, 1850 to 1950. Examples of clothing, hairstyles, accessories as well as men’s fashion are available for comparison.
— Vintage Victorian (vintagevictorian.com) has sketches and photos offering clues on clothing styles from the 1850s through the 1910s. This site also includes bathing costumes and evening attire.
— Eyeglasses Warehouse (Eyeglasseswarehouse.com) is a retail site. Although not where you would typically research your family, this site has offered me many clues in the past. By clicking on the vintage or retro frames tabs you can choose an era which then shows examples of spectacles worn at the time.
— 1860-1960 (1860-1960.com) is another retail gem. If the photo you are trying to date includes a woman’s hat, this site can help. Carrying a hundred years of fashion and accessories, the hat section includes wonderful details on each, including dates and often the hairstyle that would accompany the hat.
— Harper’s Bazaar (Bazar) (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Harper_s_Bazaar) Founded in 1867, Harper’s Bazaar is still in production today. Find women’s hairstyles through the years by skimming the pages.
Remember to look at the background for clues too. Kitchen appliances, TVs or even military uniforms have all helped in my own research. Old cars can also help you strike gold. I’m lucky in that I can show my husband a photo of a vintage car and before I ask, he’s already offered a year and model. He is very handy to have around. To help identify a car, look for car clubs online such as Ford & Mercury Restorers Club of America (fmrcoa.org) or a collector’s website such as Hubcap Café (hubcapcafe.com) for comparisons.
To get a clear idea when a photograph was taken, it’s likely you’ll need to consider many factors along with the ideas above. While you may never reach a definitive date, piecing together the clues will enable you to find an estimated date range and hopefully put Joan’s photo in the family tree. Happy hunting!
Carol DiPirro-Stipkovits is a member of the National Genealogical Society and Association of Professional Genealogists. Send questions or comments to her at [email protected].