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Dating vintage photographs: Genealogy research in action

Nancy Price co-founded in 1999, and now serves as the site's Executive Editor. In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade, she also served as the editor-in-chief of two national print magazin...

The mystery of vintage photos

Figuring out certain aspects of your family tree can seem like a real puzzle, especially when any photographs you have aren't labeled and lack any obvious clues (like a calendar, a dated vehicle registration sticker or a street sign). But when you do manage to fit a few of the pieces together, just like a real puzzle, the whole picture becomes clearer. Here's a look at how one real-life photographic mystery was solved!

D) Put it together to learn even more

Using the references from the first page, I estimated this photo to be from somewhere between 1903 and 1906. When I combine that year range that with data I collected from other photos of this branch of the family, it seemed to make sense that the people shown in this photograph are my great-grandmother Emilie, her father, her mother, and her brother Frederick. They are most likely standing in front of their own home.

Here's a closer look:

The mystery of vintage photos

Based off those assumptions, I referred to these people's personal histories and see that the matriarch, Magdalena, died in December 1905. Since she appears to be quite alive above, I deduce that this picture is most likely from the spring/summer of 1903, 1904 or 1905.

The next step is to "check my math" -- that is, turn the facts around and see if they still fit.

Using the middle year, 1904, for comparison, I estimate the approximate ages of the four people in the portrait, and see that it all seems to match. Emilie, born in 1884, would have been about 20; Frederick, born three years later, would be 17. (Their mom and dad would be about 48 and 56, respectively.) The only immediate family member missing from the photograph is the eldest sister Rose, but that makes sense, too: She was 29 years old in 1904, and had been married since 1895.

Equal measures art & science

The mystery of vintage photos

Not every picture will so readily offer clues you can use -- but many will... and some might even make your job easy-peasy by providing a detail that helps you pinpoint an exact month or year.

At right is a snapshot that had a very important timestamp hidden in plain sight. I simply needed to enlarge the photo on my computer, reverse the image and do a quick Google search to understand what I'd discovered.

The mystery of vintage photos

The clue was the sign posted in the window. When I blew the image up and flipped it over, the words "Liberty Loans" were very clear. (See a close-up on the left) A little research showed that this paper showed the design used to advertise the fourth series of US Liberty Bonds issued during WWI -- a program that started on September 28, 1918.

That date then put this photo into context, so now I knew that in the snapshot above, you are seeing my grandmother and her little sister, standing on the porch of what was probably the general store. And once I got to know what these two women I knew looked like when they were young, I was able to identify them in other photographs... and on it goes.

Check out these sites from some photo sleuths for more techniques:

Mark it, share it

Once you solve a genealogical mystery, don't let that knowledge go to waste! Of course, you will want to put the original in a photo album and write a label. But also be sure to add a description to your digitized photo files, and then share those images with friends and family.

The easiest way to distribute tens (or hundreds, or thousands) of photos is to post them on an image sharing website -- be it Facebook, Flickr, your own blog or another site. By uploading them, you also create backup copies of your scanned images.

Unless you have a particular privacy concern, consider allowing the public to view your albums of vintage photos. Realize that sharing your pictures and what you have learned about your collection will be of interest to many people, and could even help fellow sleuths crack the code of their own heritage. (And who knows -- maybe you'll even find a long-lost relative!)

Using the web to preserve your images for posterity has one other advantage, too. By making them part of the internet, you will be assuring that -- in one small way, at least -- you and your family will live on and on and on.


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