My next two columns are shorter than usual due to the holidays. It’s definitely a hectic time of the year. I don’t know about the traditions in your family, but in mine, no holiday is complete without dragging out albums and boxes of photos. It gives us a chance to reminisce about those no longer with us.
This is also a great time to think about those mystery photos and take another look at the details.
During the years of writing this column I’ve compiled a list of the top four details often overlooked by individuals when trying to date and identify family photos. It’s easy to do when carried away with the bigger puzzle of who’s in a picture.
Is there a calendar in the background?
The one in this photo establishes a date of May, 1904. Even without the calendar, the map of the United States behind them makes an interesting clue.
If there’s a US flag in a photo, start dating the picture by counting the stars in the flag. The addition of states during the late 19th and early 20th century meant that flags were frequently changed. Of course, you’ll have to add up the rest of the clues in the picture to see if it’s a flag current to the details in the image.
Use your genealogical know-how to use city directories and other tools to research the businesses mention in a sign in a picture. It could pinpoint a location as well as supply a time frame.
From Aug. 1, 1864, to Aug. 1, 1866, the United States taxed photographs. If you own a carte de visite with a stamp on the back, you’ll have a two-year time frame for the image. The value of the stamp is a clue to how much your ancestor paid to have the image made. Photographers were supposed to put their initials and a date on the stamp, but that didn’t always happen.
There are lots of other details that appear in pictures from postage stamps to even dress collars (I’ll save that tip for later) and cars. Next time you look at a family photo make a list of all the evidence in a picture and then try to solve the identification problem.