Spotting Light-Eyed Ancestors in Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Craig and other Hollywood actors and actresses draw attention with their variously shaded blue eyes. Eye color is easy to spot in contemporary color pictures, but how can you tell if you inherited your baby blues from your maternal or paternal great-grandparent? The proof may be in a family photo.

Here’s a quick identification tip: Look at your ancestor’s eyes. Do their irises look dark or are they ghostly in appearance? Blues and light greens often appear pale and ghostly in old pictures. The lighter the eye color, the whiter they appear.

Here’s an example:

This is one of my favorite images from the Library of Congress website. It depicts Maria Boyd of Warwick, RI, holding a weaving shuttle in the mid-1800s. Take a close look at her eyes.

Her irises are pale in color, suggesting blue or light green eyes. This one detail can help you identify the right ancestor if you have additional information such as:

  • a family story about the blue-eyed greatgrandmother
  • a pension or military service papers that mention eye color
  • an already-identified photograph of a person with similar facial features and the same eye color

However, identifying a person based on eye color comes with a warning. Not everyone liked the appearance of their light-colored eyes in pictures, or sometimes the pale eyes need additional definition to be clearly seen in a photo. Photographers sometimes added color in hand-colored images, or darkened the eyes in enhanced black-and-white pictures.

On a somewhat-related note, blue eyes and DNA have been in the news. Scientific studies suggest all blue-eyed people descend from the same ancestor. Interesting!

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