How Clues in Your Old Family Photos Can Keep You Out of Trouble

By Maureen A. Taylor

It’s time for another installment of Mikael Hammerman’s mystery photo, which shows a mother and a daughter—and just might shed light on his family legend about a young mother who ran away with her employer to America.

Clues in a picture can keep you from jumping to conclusions about how the photo and a handed-down family story are connected. Before I read readers’ email submissions of mystery photos for analysis, I always look at the picture first to see what it says about time period. Only then do I consult your description of the problem.


Here are three clues in Hammerman’s picture that require more study. I purposefully haven’t yet shown you the whole photo—I’m keeping you in suspense!

1. Examine the image to see if other pictures are displayed in the background.

In this case, they’re on a shelf, but look for photos hung on walls, too.

Here’s a close-up of the two clusters of pictures:

You can get a closer look by using a photographer’s loupe or by scanning the photo at a high resolution, then zooming in on he digitized image.

This type of clue would send me running back to my collection of pictures to see if I have any matches to the background photos.

2. Look for obvious date clues.
The little girl in this picture is seated at a piano. Her hands are on the keys and her eyes are cast downward at sheet music. I’m not musically inclined. Can you read this sheet music and play it? (Unfortunately, the original image resolution doesn’t allow a better close-up shot of the music.)

Wouldn’t it be great to hear what she’s playing? If you can, I’d love to hear a recording of what it sounds like.

Looking at this picture and hearing the music would bring a new dimension to this photo, and possibly offer a date (based on when the music was released or was popular).

3. Watch for subtle clues.

This little chair, decorated with ribbons, occupies a space between the mother and daughter. I wonder why. The problem with older photos is you can’t see the original colors—the ribbons could be black (signifying mourning) or bright red. The seat is well-worn. It could be used as a step-stool, or it could memorialize a little child who died.


Photo clues come in all varieties. What’s the oddest clue you ever seen in a picture?

Come back next week for the big reveal about this clue-filled picture!

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
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