Photo Detective: Looking Back

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

The next time you flip through your collection of unidentified photographs, turn them over. The hacks of the pictures may be more interesting and informative than the images themselves. And if you know what to look for, they could hold the keys to identifying those mystery faces. So grab your magnifying glass and start examining your pictures for these telling details:

Revenue stamps

Between Aug. 1, 1864, and Aug. 1, 1866, the US government levied a tax on photos. Photographers had to affix a stamp to the backs of their images, and hand-cancel each stamp with their names or initials and the dates of sale. That date can help you compile a list of ancestors who lived in the right place and time. Narrow that pool by matching your ancestors’ sexes and ages with those of the people depicted.

The stamp also supplies you with some social history. A stamp’s monetary value will tell you how much the picture cost. If the photographer charged less than 25 cents, the image bore a 2-cent stamp; between 25 and 50 cents, a 3-cent stamp; and between 50 cents and a dollar, a 5-cent stamp. For each additional dollar, the photographer added a 5-cent stamp.

Photographers’ imprints

Photographers often included their names and studio addresses on the backs of their images. With this information, you can find out where and when the photographer worked, and then narrow the image’s time frame. Look for the photographer in city and trade directories, census records, and published compilations of local or regional photographers. Visit Finding Photographers <> or read Photographers: A Sourcebook for Historical Research edited by Peter E. Palmquist (Carl Mautz Publishing).

If the photographer earned recognition or accolades, he might have bragged about it on the backs of his pictures — giving you more clues. For instance, A. Marx, a German photographer whose work is pictured here, won two American photography awards in 1888 and another in London in 1889. On the backs of his images, he reproduced his medals. The graphics supply Marx’s first name, Arthur, and tell us that Marx must have taken this photograph after 1889.

With your own images, study the photographer’s imprint carefully. It might tell you the types of images the photographer took and, as with this image, his telephone number. Finding out when phone service was available in his area can narrow the time frame and the list of possible subjects.


Captions can help or hinder your efforts to identify a photograph. Even a first name or relationship (“Sister of Louise”) will increase your odds of putting a name with a face. But captions can be misleading: Sometimes, people record the wrong name, or the right name and the wrong date. Until you can assess all the clues in a picture, don’t blindly accept caption data or jump to conclusions.

Picture numbers

Have you ever noticed the numbers on the backs of your photographs? Start paying attention to them. You probably won’t find a collection of the photographer’s numbered negatives; however, since families usually visited the same photographer, you might be able to establish a relationship based on those digits. Let’s say you have a portrait of a young woman that’s numbered 105. By turning over all your pictures by the same photographer, you could find that you have identified pictures of the woman’s brother and father, numbered 104 and 106. Aha! That mystery woman now has a name.

It’s amazing how many details we can overlook when examining our photographs. Add up all the clues, and you have a positive identification. Just remember that you need to examine the front and the back of a picture in order to reach a logical conclusion.
From the February 2004 Family Tree Magazine