10 Detective Tips for Identifying Old Photos

Family researchers can’t resist solving genealogical mysteries. Some of the toughest mysteries to crack are the identities of the subjects in old photos. 

Unidentified old photos exist in nearly everyone’s family history collection. I remember the day I drove more than 400 miles to pick up a musty old brown shoebox stuffed with family photos. Upon opening the box, I discovered none of the photos were identified.   

Solving photo identification mysteries requires some basic detective skills, genealogy experience, historical knowledge, and an understanding of societal trends.  

Let’s Get Sleuthing

If you’ve watched a TV crime show, you know that solving the case ultimately hinges on good detective work. Cracking a photo mystery requires use of the same sleuthing skills. Be observant, look for the smallest of details. Use deduction and reasoning. Spend plenty of time investigating. And, finally, pull all of the forensic evidence together to solve the case. 

Now, it’s time for you to dig out one of those old photos in your collection and use these 10 tips to help enhance your photo detective skills.

Tip 1: Photo Type

Abraham Lincoln, Congressman-elect from Illinois. Three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front. This daguerreotype is the earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken at age 37 by photographer Nicholas H. Shepherd.

The first photograph taken with a camera is thought to be one by Frenchman Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826. However, he used a rudimentary photography method, requiring at least 8 hours of exposure to capture an image.

There are six main types of old photos developed from the 1840s to 1900, when the Kodak Brownie camera was introduced.

  1. Daguerreotype (1840s to early 1860s). They are typically small, being 2 ¾” x 3 ½” and housed in a case. A Daguerreotype is reflective like a mirror and the image appears to float. 
  2. Ambrotypes (1855-1865). They, too, are typically displayed in small hinged cases, but do not have the mirror-like quality because the image is on the glass. 
  3. Tintypes (1856-1890s). Instead of glass, the image was on an iron plate. They were commonly stored in paper sleeves, rather than the hinged case.  
  4. Cartes des Visites (1859 to 1870s). Measuring 2 ½” x 4”, the CDV photographs are mounted on thick paper. They were popular among Civil War soldiers. They were also commonly exchanged among family members. 
  5. Cabinet cards (1860 to early 1900s). These were also an albumen print on thin paper, mounted on thicker paper. However, they were much larger. 
  6. Film snapshots. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera and taking photographs became cheaper, allowing the masses to own and use one. 

One of the best online resources for helping determine your photo type is through the Library of Congress. Enter a photo type into the search box and you’ll see many examples that may be similar to the photo you are researching.

Tip 2: Written or Printed

Portrait of a woman, c. 1895, Wakefield, Day and Electric Studios, 1, High Street, Ealing, W., Science Museum Group Collection

This may seem obvious, but don’t overlook handwritten notes on the back of the photo. Some detective work may still be required, but even a few words, such as “Jesse” and “Frank” might be immensely helpful.

In addition, does the front of the photo hold some printed clues, such as the name of the photographer or photo studio and it’s location.

Tip 3: The Entire Scene

Look closely at the photo’s entire scene, not just at the subjects; and write down everything that you see. If the photo was taken in a portrait studio, you can still find clues. Look for props, like a soldier posed with his rifle, a miner with his pick, and a child holding a toy. Sometimes it’s the studio setting itself that holds clues; take a look at the backdrop, the rug on the floor or flower vase on the pedestal.

Coal Miners, Jenkins, Kentucky, Photographer Ben Shann (1898-1969), United States Resettlement Administration, October 1935

This sample photo offers many clues: a bus with a license plate, a vintage model vehicle in the background, an industrial-looking building, a rural and mountainous terrain, a season when the trees were without leaves, and the men are carrying metal lunch pails and wearing miner helmets. These details all provide vital clues that can draw your research together.

Tip 4: Specific Apparel

Unidentified African American Civil War veteran in the Grand Army of the Republic uniform with two children, Goodman and Springer, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., Library of Congress

In dating and identifying your photo, consider any uniforms, traditional ethnic clothing, or occupational wear that may be worn by the subjects.

Don’t overlook any medals, badges or ribbons they may also be wearing that can help identify an organization they may have been associated with or timeframe when the memorabilia was issued.

Tip 5: Hairstyles & Hats

Maureen A. Taylor, better known as the Photo Detective, has studied hair styles extensively and says hair is something that really stands out in a photo. She is the author of the book “Hairstyles 1840-1900.” Using clues in the book, you can discover when the photo was taken, how old the subjects were at the time, and how wealthy they were.   

The article of clothing that performed the most important role in indicating social distinction between classes of both men and women was the hat. Hats were worn for practical reasons, like the straw hat that protected farmer’s heads from the sun. Other hats were part of uniforms, styled for religious purposes or were part of ladies’ and men’s fashion. Headwear has taken many forms and adopted by different cultures, religions, trades, and social classes, including capes and hoods, scarves, bonnets, caps, top hats, and more.

Bruck-Weiss Aviation Hat, photo shows woman wearing beaded and embroidered cloche hat, circa 1926, Library of Congress Online Catalog

There are many online and library resources you can use to compare and date hairstyles and hats.

One of my go-to books is Women’s Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles: With 453 Illustrations, Medieval to Modern by Georgine de Courtais

Tip 6: Fashion

Fashion is one of the easiest ways to narrow the date range of a photo. Close examination of sleeves, collars, fullness of a skirt, how a shirt or jacket is buttoned, and whether it is loose or fitted are all clues. 

Women’s Fashions: Pantaloon Skirt, photo by Bain News Service, N.Y.C., 1911, Library of Congress Prints

There are many websites and books for matching styles to a particular era.

Since I’m not a fashionista, I turn to publications like History of Men’s Fashion by Nicholas Storey and Design Line: History of Women’s Fashion by Natasha Slee and Sanna Mander.

Tip 7: Interviews

A good detective always conducts interviews. Ask yourself: “Who among my living relatives might be able to help me identify this photo?“ It might be a grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or even an old family neighbor. Go speak to them and enjoy the time just reminiscing. 

Tip 8: Historical Records

Display windows of People’s Drug Store, W.W. Thompson Branch, 15th and New York Ave., Washington, D.C. Circa 1909-1932, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Consult historical records. Use any names or places you identify in the photo to consult historical records for that place and time. For instance, a shopkeeper’s sign, window advertisement, street sign, name of a gas station, location of the photography studio… all of these are clues that could be cross-checked in community directories and other historical records.

Tip 9: Popular Sites

You’ve seen detectives searching online databases for the identity of their subjects. You, too, can upload your photograph to one of the free photo identification websites and ask for help. DeadFree.com and Ancestors Lost and Found are popular sites. 

You can also share your unidentified photo with a genealogy Facebook group, like Genealogy. Just Ask! and solicit help from their members.

Tip 10: Put it together

It can be fun researching old photos. It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, with each clue representing another piece that brings you closer to finishing the entire puzzle. 

Over time, you start to train yourself to recognize visual clues. I like to start by using a notepad to jot down all of the clues. Then I create a list of the ancestors that meet the criteria as possible matches, based on their age, how many siblings they had, places where they lived, jobs they held, etc.  Before you know it, you have narrowed the list to just a few possible matches and then you can solve the mystery.

Can You Solve This Mystery?

Put your photo detective skills to the test by finding as many clues as possible in this photo. Use those clues to identify the approximate year the photo was taken. Then use your genealogy and American history background to explain why this family has traveled so far with all of their personal belongings strapped to their car. Don’t sneak a peek at the answer before testing your new sleuthing skills.  

Just for fun, list one clue in the comment section that helped you solve the mystery and explain why it was helpful.

ANSWER: Okie Migration. Roughly 2.5 million people left the Dust Bowl states – Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma during the 1930s. It was one of the largest migrations in American history. Oklahoma alone lost 440,000 people to the migration. Many of them poverty-stricken, traveled west looking for work. Approximately, 250,000 Oklahoma migrants moved to California and about of a third settled in the San Joaquin Valley.

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