Cars in Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

In 20th century family photos, it’s pretty common to see folks posed with their automobiles. It’s a variation on the late 19th century scene with the family posed with their horse.

Not everyone owned a car. Photo studios jumped on this as a marketing opportunity. Individuals could go to have their picture taken and pose in a fake car (or even on a plane).


Elizabeth Wiseman thinks her grandfather is behind the steering wheel in this studio shot of four men in a fake automobile. Before I weigh in on who’s in the car, I’m going to ask her for a higher resolution photo.

The first thing you notice when you look at this photo is that the steering wheel in on the right side. In the early years of American automobile manufacturing, it’s not unusual to see the wheel on the right. It was pretty typical for early horseless carriages. There was a rare car known as a Hamilton constructed in 1909 that also featured a right-hand steering wheel. Only 25 were made.

There were so many car manufacturers in this country that there’s no comprehensive guide. Just like fashion, the date is in the details. Start by looking at the length of the chassis, the style of the wheels and headlamps as well as the style of the windshield (if there is one).

These four men posed for a photo seated in a studio prop that resembled a touring car. I love the small side door with a handle!


Solve your family photo mysteries with these books 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
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album