Genealogists are famous for collecting relatives, but what about acquiring images of those folks? Is it really possible to find previously unknown photos of family members from the advent of photography in 1839? The answer is that it depends.
Family circumstances, their comfort level with photography and the availability of photographers all determine if your ancestors sat for pictures in photo studios or not.
By the time the amateur photographer era with Kodaks You Push the Button, We Do the Rest slogan came along in the 1880s, many families were interested in having pictures taken. But it wasnt until the turn of the 20th century that snapshots really took off. Years of traveling around the country looking at family photos has taught me that most families had access to a camera by the early 20th century. There was suddenly an explosion of images. Ive seen the proof.
This doesnt mean that your family only took snapshots and didnt sit for cabinet cards, tintypes, ambrotypes, or daguerreotypes. Frankly, the inheritance of images is a little sketchy. Sometimes images go to the oldest, sometimes the youngest and occasionally no one wants those unidentified images. At each junction of your family tree are opportunities for photo collections to be split amongst living relatives.
So who got what in yuor family? To figure that out you need a plan. Its a lot like a research plan for information, only this time youre hunting for pictures.
Mark Your Family Tree
If you own images of various folks on your family tree, mark that information by highlighting or if youre using family tree software attach those images to the persons information. This helps you see where the gaps are.
This means locating all living relatives to see if they have any photographs. If you have a gap for a particular branch of the family, this could mean that either they didnt take pictures or someone else inherited them. Read my article on tracing your family forward for tips on researching family lines from 1839 to the present.
Post Your Search
A colleague once used a message board to see if anyone had data on a branch of her family. The person who responded said they didnt, BUT they had a photo album. Hurrah! My friend asked to copy all the images in it. She didnt have the material she sought, but she did find a few dozen images all taken in the 1860s.
I have bad research luck. My family just doesnt want to be found. At least thats what Ive decided. Imagine my surprise when I decided to type a name into Ancestry.com and click on a family tree. Turns out a very distant cousin created an Ancestry family tree and on it hed posted images. They were pictures of my great-grandparents that even my mother had never seen. I did the genealogical happy dance that day!
Let’s not forget the treasure troves of images held in local history collections in historical societies, archives and public libraries. Search their online digital collections first then contact the organization and find out how to hire someone to ferret out images in their collections.
There are lots of opportunities to find pictures. Your family tree is a map and a compass combined. If you’ve been successful in your hunt for pictures send me an e-mail. I love to hear good news!