Photographs on Who Do You Think You Are?

By Maureen A. Taylor

Every so often, the cameras for Who Do You Think You Are pan across a family photo. Last week, there were two images of Marisa Tomei’s ancestors. Instead of being in a family album, they were on a tombstone in Italy.

How unusual was the practice of putting photographs on tombstones?

Not very. In fact, the first US patent for including photographs on headstones dates from March 11, 1851. It was issued to Solon Jenkins, Jr. of West Cambridge, Mass., for “Securing Daguerreotypes on Monumental Stones” (U.S. Patent No. 7,974). You can view the whole patent file on Google through the Patent database.

If your ancestral headstone once had a daguerreotype it’s likely no longer there. Unfortunately, most were pried out of the stones.

Jay Ruby’s book Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America (MIT Press, 1995) includes a chapter on memorial photography as it pertains to pictures on gravestones.

If anyone knows of a photographic headstone shown on, please post the link in the comments below. I’d love to see it.

You can watch the entire Tomei episode online to catch another glimpse of the 20th century photographic headstones. I just wish the series would linger on the pictures for more than a few seconds. As a reader of this column, you know that a picture can contain a lot of family history information!

Next week, I leave for London for the Who Do You Think You Are? Live! event. If you’re going to be there, stop by the photo gallery on the second floor and say hi. This will be my fourth year there. I’ll report on any interesting photo items upon my return. Cheerio!

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album