3 Tips to Locate Photos of Ancestors’ School Days

3 Tips to Locate Photos of Ancestors’ School Days

For the first three years of grade school, I went to class in a 19th-century building. A big wide staircase and a classroom cloak room stick in my mind. That building is long gone, replaced by a modern school. I've search for a picture of the original structure to see...

For the first three years of grade school, I went to class in a 19th-century building. A big wide staircase and a classroom cloak room stick in my mind. That building is long gone, replaced by a modern school. I’ve search for a picture of the original structure to see if my memories of it compare to how it actually looked.

Finding images of the schools my family attended is a good beginning to understanding their classroom experience, and it helps flesh out my family story.

Depending on when and where they lived, the school could be a one-room schoolhouse or a massive brick-and-mortar city school.


Nebraska State Historical Society, [Digital ID, e.g., nbhips 12036]

If your ancestor attended school in Nebraska, count yourself lucky. The Nebraska State Historical Society added images to the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress. This one is a sod school, District 62, 2 miles west of Merna, Custer County, Neb., in 1889.

In this picture, you can see the backwards writing on the bottom edge of the original glass plate.

According to the cataloging record, in 1974, someone identified the teacher in the middle as Elsie Thomas who married a Bidgood. One of the girls in the back row, second to the left of the teacher, is Nettie Hannawald. There is another picture of Nettie online as well.

Tip 1: Look online. Search the Library of Congress for pictures of schools in places your ancestors lived. Choose “Photos, Prints, Drawings” from the dropdown menu at the top, and type search terms such as Merna Nebraska school.

Then expand your search to Google images. A quick search for history of public school architecture Grand Rapids resulted in a lot of hits including an online article and photo essays for Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Tip 2: Check newspapers.
In a town where I once lived, an old schoolhouse is now a bank, but I learned a lot about the building form old newspapers. In the 1930s, some members of the town balked at installing indoor plumbing. The old outhouse was good enough, they said.

Search newspapers looking for school information:

  • You might locate information about the school building.
  • Merit student lists in the paper could mention your relative
  • There might be an engraving or a photograph published

Tip 3: Ask the locals. Public libraries and historical societies often have pictures of old school buildings. Check the library or society website for a collection of digital images. Include school yearbooks in your search.

Let us know what you find!


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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