Apply Census Data to Your Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Twice a month I write a column on identifying those nameless photographs in your family photograph collections, but what if you already know the name of the person? Then what? You can use various types of genealogical resources to discover new information and add to your knowledge of that family and those pictures. This week, instead of focusing on an unidentified photograph, I want to show you how to apply data found in census records to your family photographs.

If you have a family group and know the names of some of the individuals, examining census records can provide you with the names and ages of siblings who might have died after the portrait was taken. These individuals may not be part of the oral history of your family and thus be unknown faces in the portrait, until you find them in a census document or vital record.

In some cases, the photograph is telling only part of the story. There is a portrait of my grandmother, her sister, a brother, their parents and two young children. It looks like a complete family portrait until the census research and vital records reveal that there were other brothers who died just prior to the picture taking session. Those children lived with the grandparents for several years until their father remarried. In the 1910 census, the following individuals appear: Joseph McDuff; his wife Elvina; their children Alfred, Albert, Roseanne, Alice, Emile and John B; and their two grandchildren Dora H. and Napoleon. The grandfather, Joseph McDuff, is also listed. By the time the family sat for this particular portrait two of the brothers died and one moved out of state. Vital records and family oral history put together the rest of the story. Dora “Dolores” and Napoleon “Pete” lived with their grandparents until their father, Albert, remarried.

A photo album with partial captions can have a whole new meaning when you consult census records to verify full names. While a census document won’t confirm a nickname, a photograph of “Polly” may match a census record for Mary. Let’s not forget the valuable role that census records play in dating photographs based on photographer’s imprints. While city directory research verifies when a company was in business and where it was located, a population census tells you more about the photographer including how economically viable the company was and how the company expanded or contracted with the growth of photography. Photography may not even be the primary business. Many individuals advertised themselves as photographers just to make extra money. Special schedules also contain information. For instance, the manufacturing census for 1850 included photographers with a gross product of more than $500 because they were a new industry.

If you have non-family members in the family collection, learn more about them by tracing them in the census. You may discover relationships to family you’d already identified.

There is a great deal to be learned about a photograph from census research as long as you understand the pros and cons of the data. For instance, remember that individuals were not as focused on age as we are today so there are variations in the recording of family members. Once you understand that picture research is a combination of genealogical research tools and library materials, you can finally begin to put the whole story of your family together in words and pictures!