Finding Your Ancestors’ Graduation Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

This time of year makes me think about graduations. I live near two universities and often see graduates in cap and gowns smiling for pictures. Our ancestors also posed for school pictures, whether they were graduating from eighth grade, a trade school, high school or a college/university.

In the mid-19th century, class books included actual card photographs of the graduates. The yearbook format we’re familiar with debuted in the 1880s.

Here are some tips on locating images of ancestral graduates in your family.

  • Contact the public library or historical society in the town where they lived to see if either institution has a yearbook collection. You can also try the local department of education, but usually older records are donated to a local historical society.
  • If your ancestor attended a private school, try contacting the school library to see if it has an archive. Most colleges and universities maintain an archive with yearbooks and other items. In some schools, incoming freshmen posed for pictures, not just when they graduated. Don’t forget to check the school website in case there is a digital collection.
  • Try searching for yearbooks online. For starters, here are some websites with yearbooks:
    • Genealogy Today has a large collection of yearbooks and school materials. Search this list to see if a school your ancestor attended is mentioned.
    • Search for yearbooks and school materials published before 1922 on the Internet Archive. Enter the name of the school in the search box and narrow by year.
    • Looking for a more recent yearbook? It might be worth subscribing to The cost is $19.95 a year or $4.95 for a month.
    • The Library of Congress collection has a few graduation-related photographs. Search by surname and by school.
    • Cyndis has a category for Yearbooks and Annuals.

In my book Searching For Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now! you’ll discover other research tips for locating family photos.

You may have a graduation photo and not know it. Watch for clues such as rolled-up diplomas. Some studio photographers used these as props.

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