Using the Clues in Old Family Photos

(This is an article that Gail Lee Martin wrote for the eHow website back in August 2009. I was able to retrieve it with the Wayback Machine and add some photo examples to it.)

It’s so sad to see a box of vintage family pictures that no one knows who’s who. Unlabeled photos present a challenge, so you need to play detective to figure out the who, what, where and when that goes with the old photo. Here’s how to figure it out.

  1. If you recognize anything in the picture, use that as a starting point. If you recognize the setting (a room or the outside of a house) then you narrow down the possibilities. If that’s great-grandpa’s house, then start mentally reviewing your relatives to see if any look vaguely like these people.

    dated on front 8-16-1912, house with man, woman, 2 boys with bicycles

    Vintage family photo, dated on front 8-16-1912. It features a frame house with a man in overalls, a woman in a floor-length apron, and 2 boys with bicycles. We think it might be from our Joy family line.

  2. Even if you know only one person in the picture, that helps identify the rest. If that’s Aunt Margie, then the fellow with his arm around her might be her first husband that you never met.
  3. Try to establish the time period for the picture by looking at clothing styles and any known children in the photo. Bobbed hair, shorter skirts with a dropped waist, and long stockings indicate the 1920s. If you know that one child is Cousin Bobbie, then guess at his age by his size. If he looks to be about ten or twelve, use his current age minus 10 or 12 to get an approximate date for the photo.

    Reading Kansas_Cora and Gail Martin with Martin Kids 1952

    Gail Martin with her children and her mother-in-law, Cora Joy Martin.

    Once you’ve determined one child in a group photo, it helps you identify the other children. If this is Clyde, then this younger child has to be Howard and the baby must be Charles.

  4. If you have several photos with the same people wearing the same clothes, then review them as a group to figure out the event and who’s who.
  5. If the photo is faded and hard to see the details, scan it into the computer. Use any photo software to enhance the picture or brighten it. In looking at a picture of my mother in her 20s, I thought there were trees in the background. When I brightened the picture on my computer, I realized it was clouds of black smoke, possibly from a prairie fire.

    Ruth and the cow_edited

    Ruth Vining McGhee (Gail Martin’s mother) with the cow. Smoke clouds on the horizon.

  6. Take any labeled photos that you have and compare them with the unknown photos. Look for similar backgrounds, and similar clothing and haircuts. If this is Aunt Bertha, then probably this lady is her again but thirty years later.
  7. Take advantage of older relatives’ memories. Take your unidentified photos to a family reunion or make a personal visit to Great-Aunt Viola with them. In some cases, you can email the photo to a distant relative and ask for their help identifying the person and place.
 A reader commented on the article back in 2009 –  “Oh, I’m so glad I read this! I have all of my family’s old photos, tintypes and all, and I never thought to look for clues on the ones with no names or dates. Thank you very much for such a well-written and informative article!”

2 thoughts on “Using the Clues in Old Family Photos

  1. Pingback: Label Your Photos! | Discovering Mom

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