Photo Detective: Pre-Photography Images

Photo Detective: Pre-Photography Images

Find out what ancestors from before the era of photography looked like.

So where can you search to find these pre-photographic portraits and other clues to how your ancestors looked? You’ll discover plenty of options. It’s a rare book, for example, that doesn’t contain at least one picture. Either the author supplies those images or a professional picture researcher is hired to find appropriate images. Learn to follow their steps to locate images of your ancestors before the age of photography.

The first step in all picture research is a visit to a large research facility—in person at a museum, public or university library or historical society, or virtually via the Internet. Most large museums have libraries, and many offer research hours to the public. You can use their facilities to search card catalogs and specialized art indexes, and to look through art-specific journals. Major public libraries such as the Boston Public Library and the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Ind., offer patrons a separate department with reference materials to help with art searches. And don’t forget to check local historical societies and libraries in the areas your ancestors lived. Most have local history collections that include picture files.

You can also search manuscript finding aids such as the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) (portions are online) to locate illustrated family records, letters and diaries. NUCMC can help find documents that list physical descriptions, such as pension applications, as well.

At your library, the best printed index to portraits is a four-volume set published by the Library of Congress, the ALA Portrait Index: Index To Portraits Contained in Printed Books and Periodicals. While it has never been updated, you can find this classic reference source in most libraries. It should be your first stop when looking for portraits painted or printed before 1906. Also check Print Index: A Guide to Reproductions, compiled by Pamela Jeffcott Parry and Kathe Chipman, which covers prints from the mid-18th century. Your library’s reference shelf also probably has Art Index, an annual index to art periodicals published from 1929 to 1991. You can also search a variety of periodicals using Online Computer Library Center’s FirstSearch, a reference tool available at major libraries and research institutions.

Online, you can search the Catalog of American Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. This catalog contains data on more than 100,000 portraits—paintings, sculptures, drawings, miniatures and silhouettes.

Unfortunately, there is no index to illustrations that appear in published genealogies, but the family histories themselves are easy to find with a list of surnames and accessibility to a major genealogical collection in your area. While genealogies didn’t regularly include portraits until the mid- to late 19th century, you might find some earlier prints illustrating more recent publications. Check the frontispiece of each genealogy that relates to your family name to see if illustrations were used. Online catalog listings also may note whether books have illustrations.

To hunt for ancestral descriptions in early newspapers, you can tap online subscription newspaper databases such as Accessible Archives or Ancestry.com’s Historical Newspaper Collection. For microfilmed archives of local newspapers, the United States Newspaper Project is a good starting place. You can also check newspaper abstracts, such as those published by Picton Press. 

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