Now What? Photo Serial Numbers

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Q.  I have a picture of my grandparents that was taken by Olan Mills. The picture has a number on the back. The number is 433434. Is it just an inventory number or can it tell me when the picture was taken?

A. The number on the back is a file number used by Olan Mills Sr. (1904-1978). He started his picture-taking business in northwest Alabama in 1932, going door to door and developing negatives in his barn. The black-and-white image of your grandparents at right dates from before 1935, when the company switched to a sepia-toned print.

Today, Olan Mills’ proofs have an identification number that tells the company which studio took the picture and when it was taken, as well as the pose. For instance, take the ID number 9801 041501: The first four digits identify the studio; the next six give the date, April 15, 2001. Since the company keeps negatives on file for only two years, clients can obtain a copyright release ($10 each) that allows customers to use the picture or make copies. If you have any questions regarding photographs taken by Olan Mills, contact the company at (800) 251-6320 or <>.

From the February 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

Q. Can you tell me how I could get info on ancestors who came through Castle Garden in 1861?

A. Castle Garden, located on the southern tip of Manhattan, was the immigrant receiving station that predated Ellis Island. It opened in 1855 and processed immigrants until Ellis Island replaced it in 1892. No special records were created during the processing at Castle Garden. Only Customs Lists, the passenger arrivals from 1820 to about 1891, exist. These lists were usually printed in the United States, completed by ship company personnel at the port of departure and maintained primarily for statistical purposes. Therefore, they contain scanty information: name of ship and its master, port of embarkation, date and port of arrival, each passenger’s name, sex, age, occupation and nationality. The lists were then turned over to officials at Castle Garden, who used them for immigrant processing.

Not all of these lists have survived, and the entire time period isn’t indexed. For Castle Garden immigrants, port of New York indexes cover 1820 to 1846. (New York indexes also cover Ellis Island arrivals from 1897 to 1902, 1902 to 1943 and 1944 to 1948.)

You can obtain prints of microfilmed passenger lists by mail from the National Archives for a modest fee, using NATF Form 81. Request forms by e-mail at or write to National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20408. The National Archives will not do research for you, however. The minimum information required for a search of the index is (1) full name of the person, (2) port of arrival and (3) the month and year of arrival. Additional facts such as the passenger’s age and names of accompanying passengers are also helpful. If the list isn’t indexed, you’ll need more specific information, such as the exact date of arrival and the name of the ship.

Ship’s arrivals on microfilm are also available at the Family History Library or through its Family History Centers, and you can make prints there as well. Or check with a National Archives regional records services facility that would have films for its corresponding port, such as NARA’s Northeast Region in New York City for the Port of New York passenger arrival lists.

– Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

From the February 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine