It’s so easy to focus on just the faces and clothing that are prominently featured in your family photos, letting the other details fade into the background. But right there in plain view are clues you might be missing, clues that can help you determine when and where a photo was taken, identify who’s in it, and understand something about that person. These subtle details are in the jewelry your ancestors wore; in possessions such as cars and cameras; and in the backdrops, foliage and furniture behind them. Take, for example, the eight photos on the next few pages. Their
Anna Borish, born in 1897 in Bessarabia, stands in front of her father’s store in Seattle about 1912. Her descendant Carol Oseran Starin found the store’s address in a city directory. Looking closely at the reflection in the store window on the right, Starin was surprised to see a building she recognized. This clue pinpointed the exact location of the store across the street from Bikur Cholim Synagogue, a place central to the family’s life, in Seattle’s Yesler neighborhood.
Tools of the trade
Susan Fleck’s grandmother Opal Marguerite Hoffman Jackson holds a box camera in this photo. The appearance in a photo of cameras and other dateable gadgets—typewriters, binoculars, bicycles, etc.—can help you determine the beginning of your date range for when the picture was taken. Of course, a family might have held onto these items for years, so look at all the photo clues together as a whole.
Running a Google search such as bicycle history can tell you when a gadget was commercially available. Compare the item in your photo to image search results, too. Jackson’s camera is a Kodak Brownie, available from 1901 to 1935 in a variety of models. This camera closely resembles the Brownies produced during the early 1920s, when Jackson was a college student. These dates agree with the clues in the style of hair and clothing the young women wear. In addition to a date, this camera provides a clue to Jackson’s hobbies.
All that glitters
Julie Monson’s great-grandmother Adelaide Louise Sanderson donned a fashionable pearl choker necklace to sit for her portrait in Milwaukee. Chokers became fashionable in the late 1800s after Alexandra, Princess of Wales, began wearing them, purportedly to conceal a scar on her neck. The style of this one, as well as the high collar on Sanderson’s dress and her curled bangs, support an estimated 1884 date for the picture.
Trees, shrubs and flowers might not date a photo to a specific year, but they’re often overlooked as a seasonal clue and a part of a photo’s story. Marilyn Dunning’s great-granduncle Pieter Willemszoon Schagen (1850-1944) with his wife and daughters, posed in their Paterson, NJ, backyard. Clinging to the arbor behind Schagen’s head is a vine in full foliage, telling us the photo was taken midsummer. Bare trees, of course, would mean late fall through early spring. You sometimes can use this type of detail with clothing clues and genealogical records to narrow a date of birth—for example, a baby who appears 6 months old in a summer photo was probably born in late winter.
Coming from behind
What’s behind your relative in a photo could add to its story. In this image, for example, Helene Armstrong’s great-grandmother Margaret E. Jordan Stephens (seated) posed with two other women in front of a bed covering. This blanket, though, is more than a way to hide an unattractive background. When I first blogged about the photo below in 2007, a reader knowledgeable in textile arts explained this is a woven coverlet, either machine- or handmade.
Lean on me
Early in the 20th century, cars evolved from resembling horseless carriages to the vehicles we recognize today. Linda Lemon’s great-grandfather Peter Riess, from Bronx, NY, posed in this car around the turn of the century. According to Lemon, his first car was an 1898 Winton. Is this the same car?
Our final clue is hidden on the back of a photo: Starting in the early 20th century, our relatives could have photos developed with a postcard back, suitable for mailing. The design of the back, particularly the stamp box, can date the image on the front. The divided design, with separate areas for address and message, and style of the stamp box on this postcard dates it to after 1907. March 1, 1907, it became legal to include both the address and a message on the back of a postcard. AZO was a popular manufacturer of photo paper.