Dig out your old photographs of ancestors in foreign lands and their new homes—they might unlock answers about your family’s immigrant origins. Once you’ve translated the photographer’s signature and associated clothes with dates and places, it’s time to pull out the magnifying glass and pay attention to the photograph’s other elements. A stamp, an outdoor sign, a prop or other details may reveal facts you couldn’t find before.
- Postal clues: When postcards became popular in the late 19th century, many individuals chose to have their portraits created as postcards to mail to other relatives. Even before postcards, you could mail images along with a letter. A quick trip to your public library can reveal a great deal of data about the stamp or postmark on the letter or postal card. Philatelic societies in your area may be able to help if you have trouble finding what you need in postal history books. One stamp dates a picture and places it in a particular country—how much luckier can you get? A few places to look for answers on the Web include the Worldwide Stamp Identifier www.geocities.com/iswsc1/iswsc_ident.html, SCV Stamp Identifier www.scvs.com/stamp/ident/index.htm and the stamp info-swapping site at www.raster.it/stefano/a.
Postcards have another use: The messages on the back reveal family history. Lynn Betlock of the New England Historic Genealogical Society translated a message on the back of a photo postcard of a relative standing in front of her house in Norway and discovered the story of the woman’s new house and telephone service. Not a lot of genealogical data, but it added to the social history of the family.
As you research your family in another language, it helps to make a list of reference terms that relate to family history. Include family relationships on that list. It could help you decipher the message without using a translation service. For a more detailed discussion of photographic postcards, check out my online column, “Identifying Family Photographs” www.familytreemagazine.com/photos/july26-01.htm.
- Props: Never underestimate the value of a prop; it may tell you where a picture was taken. Photographers in different countries included a variety of props just as American photographers did, but sometimes these props are distinctive. One woman held a photograph of a fountain in her portrait. Her descendants are searching for the identity of the fountain, since it was obviously a picture of a place she once lived. Or you may have a photo of an ancestor holding a book written in another language—that provides a clue.
- Interior scenes can reveal products, furniture and even items showing religious beliefs. Some people even posed for portraits with the tools of their trade, such as a milkmaid who held her stool in one hand and a bucket in the other. While props can be mysterious, once researched, they can help you decide location and time frame for a picture.
- Location: Outdoor pictures contain scenery, signage and buildings, all of which can tell you about your ancestors. Even if the photograph was taken in the United States, immigrants often posed with clues to their heritage. Analyze photographs of individuals posed in front of buildings for architectural details, which may reveal a specific regional or national style and time period. For a quick overview of foreign architectural styles, look at how immigrants influenced building in this country in Dell Upton’s America’s Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups that Built America (Preservation Press, $16.95).
- Celebrations: Since families document their history in photographs of events such as weddings, baptisms and holidays, examine those pictures for extra clues. Wedding traditions vary according to religious preference and cultural beliefs. Holiday decorations can tell you where the party was held or where a family’s ethnic roots lie. Food also can tell you about your family: Each ethnic group serves particular food at special times.