Photo Detective: Italian Family

Photo Detective: Italian Family

Do you have old photographs of ancestors in foreign lands? If so, identifying those images could help you uncover your family's immigrant origins—just as these two photographs connect the Raiola family in the United States to their Italian kin. The writing on the bottom of Figure 1 reveals that...

Do you have old photographs of ancestors in foreign lands? If so, identifying those images could help you uncover your family’s immigrant origins—just as these two photographs connect the Raiola family in the United States to their Italian kin.

The writing on the bottom of Figure 1 reveals that the image was taken in Biella, an Italian town in the province of Novara, by a photographer named Rossetti. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find information about the photographer; however, the type of photograph helps to date the image. Along the bottom edge of the photograph appears the word platinotipia, which is Italian for platinotype, a type of paper print first introduced in the United States around 1880. The man’s large mustache and loose-fitting coat and his wife’s simple dress with slight pouching in the bodice date this image to about 1900.

The woman in Figure 1 also appears in the second family portrait. She obviously links the families together—but who is she? Costume clues narrow the time frame for these photographs even further. The dark clothing in Figure 2 is difficult to date, but the young mother’s footwear stands out. Using John Peacock’s Fashion Accessories: The Complete 20th Century Sourcebook (Thames & Hudson, $34.95), I was able to date these two-tone shoes to around 1929.

To identify foreign photographs, it’s important to use resources such as family stories and immigration data in addition to photographic clues. These two pictures, taken approximately 30 years apart, only begin to tell the story of the Raiola family.

According to family lore, husband and wife Guglialmina Onesta (Honesta) and Ralph Raiola emigrated from Italy at different times. I searched for Ralph’s name on Ancestry.com to see what genealogical data is available online. His name appeared in a California death record and two censuses.

Both the 1920 and 1930 censuses recorded year of immigration. These documents show that Ralph immigrated to the United States in 1907 and filed citizenship papers as of the 1930 census. At the age of 27, he married Guglialmina, also 27, who had immigrated to the United States in 1915. Ralph was 31 in 1920 and 41 in 1930. By 1930, the couple had two children: Louis, 14, and Rosie J., 9, both born in California. The California Death Record lists Ralph’s date of birth as May 30, 1888—only a one-year discrepancy from the ages recorded in the census. All this data suggests the couple married somewhere in the United States within a year or two of Guglialmina’s emigration from Italy. (Even though the census sheets are digitized online, it’s still worth a look at the microfilmed copies of the censuses to double-check data that’s difficult to read online.)

Of course, in order to learn more about Ralph’s time in the United States, the Raiola family should consult more resources than just these two censuses and the death record. One of the first rules of genealogical research is to work backward, which means it’s necessary to track Ralph’s past in this country before trying to make the leap to Italy. Here are some steps for the family to consider if they haven’t already done so:

     

  • Locate birth certificates for the two children and a marriage certificate for the couple.

     

  • Look for Ralph’s naturalization papers.

     

  • Search for 1910 census data.

     

  • Try to locate a 1907 passenger list for Ralph and a 1915 list for Guglialmina.

This additional research can verify where in Italy the couple emigrated from, and it might supply other family names, as well.

Figure 1 provides a starting place for research: the Italian town of Biella. The older woman in both portraits could be Ralph’s mother, the man in Figure 1 his father, and the child in Figure 1 a sibling. When Figure 2 was taken, Ralph’s father was deceased, and one of Ralph’s siblings was married with children. It’s possible that at least one of Ralph’s siblings stayed behind in Italy to care for their parents. Additional research will help the family solve this photographic mystery. In fact, by searching Italian records, they may uncover a whole new chapter of Raiola family history.

Before undertaking research in an unfamiliar area, such as a foreign country, it’s a good idea to start with a research guide. Three good resources for this problem are Italian-American Family History: A Guide to Researching and Writing About Your Heritage by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (Genealogical Publishing Co., $7.50), A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Italian Ancestors by Lynn Nelson (Betterway Books, $16.99) and Italian Genealogical Records: How to Use Italian Civil, Ecclesiastical, & Other Records in Family History Research by Trafford R. Cole (Ancestry, $34.95).

If anyone recognizes these people, please e-mail me at mtaylor@taylorandstrong.com. Learn more about identifying “Immigrant Images” in the February 2002 Family Tree Magazine. Ciao!

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