Photos Handed Down in the Family

Photos Handed Down in the Family

Raise your hand if you've discovered a cache of family photos you didn't know about after the death of a relative. I'm sure if I asked an audience of hundreds, few hands would remain down. You'd think there wouldn't be any surprise photos in my family, but no...

Raise your hand if you’ve discovered a cache of family photos you didn’t know about after the death of a relative.

I’m sure if I asked an audience of hundreds, few hands would remain down. You’d think there wouldn’t be any surprise photos in my family, but no … Even my Dad squirreled away a few I didn’t know about. I think he forgot he had them. Now I’m trying to figure out the significance of those long-lost pictures.

Bobbi Borbas is in a similar situation. She found these three images in a box of photos that once belonged to her mother.

In the first (below), a family sits for a group portrait. Look closely—only the father gazes at the lens, the rest of the family’s eyes aren’t on the camera, but on the person who stands to our left, near the photographer. It makes you wonder what’s happening on the other side of the camera. Was the assistant trying to distract the children or making last-minute suggestions?


The clothing (note the mother’s full upper sleeves) and the decorative embossing on the mat date the picture between the late 1890s to about 1905. That gives Bobbi a starting point.

When she wrote, she thought the picture might depict her great-grandfather.I called her today and asked her to send me a family chart. She’s looking for a family that fits the following details around the turn of the century:

  • Six children (three girls and two boys, plus a baby less than a year old)
  • The oldest boy and girl (behind their parents) close to their early teen years.
  • A boy (standing between his parents) around school age.

Borbas’ second image (below) is a tintype of a young girl. This is a gorgeous image without any of the darkening varnish so often seen in early tintypes.


The photographer added gold leaf to the girl’s jewelry to make it stand out. She’s probably an older toddler, not yet school age, and sits with a hand in a pocket of her cotton dress.

The dress style dates the image to the early 1860s; Wide necklines like this for young girls are seen in photos of the 1850s and 1860s. The identification clue is clearly her ears—Bobbi needs to watch for similarly shaped ears in other family pictures.

The third image is very interesting. It’s set in a tiny piece of photo jewelry, only 3/8 inch wide by 1/2 inch high. The photo itself is only a quarter inch. You’ll have to wait until next week to see it—I’m still working on a couple of the details. With any luck, I’ll be able to report success in identifying the individuals in these two images. Stay posted!

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  1. Wow, I can completely relate to this. After my grandmother passed away in August of 2006, my uncle showed me where the pictures were hidden. They were in my grandparents barn, yes I said barn, in one of those big round metal drums. They were just thrown in with trash and whatever else. I picked through it and I now have about 200 pictures that most of my family never knew existed or thought were gone. I know they date back to at least the 1940’s because of how old my father is in some of them. Some were stuck together, had mold on them, dirt, are torn, it’s just a mess, but a real treasure to find. I’m still in the process of trying to fix them in Photoshop CS3, a long process, but a fulfilling one.