Photo Detective: Holiday Photo Cards

This week, I received my first Christmas e-card, complete with a digital photo attached—a 21st-century spin on an old tradition. Photographic holiday cards have been around since the medium's early beginnings, in the 1840s. If your family has been sending and receiving cards for a number of years—or even generations—then you've probably accumulated quite a collection. But what do you do with those cards after the holidays? Here are a few ideas:

Identify and label the cards.
Although most 19th-century photographic cards included a standard greeting such as "Happy New Year," occasionally, the sender also would write her first name and the year. If you have an unidentified card, these two pieces of information—combined with a photographer's imprint (name and place of business)—can help you add a surname.

Pre-printed cards, popular in the 20th century, usually contained just the surnames of the families sending them, so your job is to add the first names. If you receive an undated photo greeting this holiday season, write on the back of the card the full names of the people depicted and the year. Then, organize all your photo cards by surname or holiday.

Add friends' cards to your family photo collection.
One of my friends inherited several decades' worth of photographic cards. If you find yourself with a similar collection, hang on to them—even if they don't depict your family. Think of them as an opportunity to connect with your family's past friendships and to discover new family information. You might research the individuals in the pictures and add the information to your genealogy. The pictures will help illustrate your family history.

If you still know the people in the photos, give the cards back to them, so they can preserve their photographic heritage. I doubt they kept copies for themselves. You also might ask those family friends if they have any photographs of your relatives.

Get the stories behind the pictures.
Photographic cards can help trigger memories of holidays past. Ask relatives what they were thinking when they had their holiday pictures taken. Were they taken at a studio with all the children dressed identically, on vacation or during a spontaneous moment? Then ask them to relate their holiday traditions. Their answers will add new details to your family history.

Create a holiday scrapbook.
Pull together everything you've learned about those holiday pictures, and use photos, stories and a few small artifacts to create a scrapbook. Enlist children's help and ask relatives to add pictures of their holiday celebrations. Before you know it, you'll have an after-dinner activity in which the whole family can participate. Purchase a few supplies, such as acid- and lignin-free paper and cardstock, at a scrapbook or craft store, and have fun putting together a memento you can add to year after year.

Start a new tradition.
Do you send out pictures with your holiday cards? If you don't, now's the time to start. With digital imaging, you can send greetings and pictures to everyone on your list—all at the click of a mouse. Whether you decide to write out cards by hand or send them electronically, you'll follow in your ancestors' footsteps and maintain contact with family and friends. It's a tradition worthy of your time and effort.

Got family photos you aren't sure what to do with or how to preserve? Let our Digitize Your Family Photos Value Pack come to your rescue, with tools to help you build a digital archive of your family's cherished memories.

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