Aerial Photographs and Ancestral Home Towns

Aerial Photographs and Ancestral Home Towns

In the 19th century, daring photographers climbed into woven baskets held aloft by balloons in order to take pictures of local landscapes. While French photographer Nadar's photograph of Paris from the air in 1858 no longer exists, other such landscapes still do. J.W. Black of Boston photographed Boston from...

In the 19th century, daring photographers climbed into woven baskets held aloft by balloons in order to take pictures of local landscapes. While French photographer Nadar‘s photograph of Paris from the air in 1858 no longer exists, other such landscapes still do.

J.W. Black of Boston photographed Boston from a balloon in 1860. That picture is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You can read more about it in Smithsonian magazine.

The world seemed enamored with aerial photography in the 1860s. During the Civil War, Gen. Ambrose Burnside employed a balloonist, Prof. James Allen of Providence, RI, to take reconnaissance photographs of battlefields and troop locations.

Visual Time Traveling with the Library of Congress.
A large number of aerial images are in the collection of the Library of Congress. Search the Prints and Photographs collection using the term, “aerial photography,” then use the “Refine your search” options on the left side of the screen to narrow results by date, place or online availability. You might locate an image of an ancestral hometown taken in the time frame your ancestor lived there.


Richmond, Virginia looking west, April 1865. Library of Congress.

Kite Photos
Balloons weren’t the only way to photograph from the air. In 1882, a British meteorologist developed a way to attach cameras to kites. The caption of this postcard states that a kite-held camera took this scene.

Aerial photography never went out of style. Airplanes replaced balloons and kites, and now there are drones. Visit any gadget store and you’re apt to see drones capable of taking videos. Search online for “drone film of [fill in the blank]” to see if there’s virtual aerial tour of an ancestral hometown.

You can read more about the history of aerial photography on Wikipedia.


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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    1. Another avenue to explore is Google street view. I captured a photo of the house my grandfather was born in 124 years ago in Ireland (it was for rent at the time of photo). Also using the street addresses off census sheets, photos of many residences in NYC of other ancestors. (as to the latter, i know NYC has old assessor photos but haven’t gone on that detour/frolic yet).