The Trouble With Captions on Old Photos

The Trouble With Captions on Old Photos

Barbara DeCrease found a photo in her grandmother's belongings with a one-word caption on the back: Grandfather. The trouble with captions like this is the lack of other identifying information. She doesn't know who wrote it, so she's puzzled. Her grandmother's grandfather was William James Elmore...

Barbara DeCrease found a photo in her grandmother’s belongings with a one-word caption on the back: Grandfather. The trouble with captions like this is the lack of other identifying information. She doesn’t know who wrote it, so she’s puzzled.

Her grandmother’s grandfather was William James Elmore Jr., born circa 1860 in Panola County, Miss. The family has no record of him after 1910. This Elmore’s father was also William James Elmore, born circa 1842 in South Carolina. No record of this man exists after 1880.

This is a wonderful picture of a hard-working man. Note the dusty work-boots. So which man is he? Barbara is fairly certain it’s Elmore Jr., but does the proof add up?

Let’s look at the caption again.

This is a postcard. The first photographic postcards were introduced in 1900, so it’s clear this image dates from after that year.

The “when” is also simple: The stamp box in the upper right corner is an AZO design with triangles in the corners. This particular design was first introduced in 1910 and remained common until 1930. If you have a photo postcard in your collection, try matching up the stamp boxes with the one’s on the Playle Web site.

On the front of the image, someone wrote William Elmore and then erased it. It’s barely visible even when I enlarge the photo on my computer, so I’m not going to zoom in here. The erased writing didn’t indicate which Elmore this is.

In the 1890s and the early part of the20th century, photographers often used wicker chairs as props. This is another detail that helps firmly set this image in the 20th century.

I agree with Barbara that this is likely William Elmore Jr. in his middle years, about 1910. Elmore Sr. would have to be older than 70 to be in this picture.

Labeling images is tricky business. Identifying this photo would’ve been a cinch, if the person who wrote grandfather had added a bit more information. I’m beginning to believe that when you caption your photos with the name, date, etc., you should include your name as the person who added the information.

If you’re looking for tips on how to label digital images for the Web to maximize their search potential, the Footnote Maven’s Search Engines Can’t Read Your Mind or Your Images is mandatory reading.

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  1. Maureen ,
    I couldn’t agree more about captions on photos .
    I have taken on the task of organizing all of my parents pictures from about 1850 to the present . I scan them by family first to protect them . As I do this I am able to label or caption each one on my computer. Then I write on them (remember ink on the glossy type and pencil on paper ) My 87 year old mother is helping as best she can .
    As a suggestion and as you have said write the caption as if you were not related to the individual , like John Smith (1920-1968 )then write maybe who he married and their children . At the bottom of each pic I put my initials and the present date to show when I processed the pic.
    For some reason some people back then didn’t think it important to add names and dates. little did they know we would be hunting for all those old pics and trying to figure them all out .
    I caption everything .
    Thanks for your articles I read them all.
    Pat Keller
    St Louis Mo