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Rediscover old family photos

Rediscover old family photos

December 16th, 2013 in News

From the Missouri secretary of state's office

With cold weather fully upon us, now is a perfect time to spend some time indoors looking through and learning from old family photos. In addition to capturing important memories, the images provide a trove of genealogical information.

"Each photograph can offer numerous hints about the lives of parents, grandparents and other relatives," said Secretary of State Jason Kander, who oversees the Missouri State Archives. "Piecing together those hints to discover new insights is something anybody can do."

First, assemble all the photos you want to sort through in one place. A large flat work station like a kitchen or dining room table is ideal. Examine each photo and try to determine its age. Various photographic processes have been utilized over the years, so the look of a photograph can tell you much about when it was taken. For instance, daguerreotypes, or photographs printed on silver-plated copper sheets, were popular between 1839 and 1860, while cabinet cards, or thin paper prints mounted on a cardboard backing, were primarily produced between 1866 and the late 1890s. Photographs taken more recently are likely the product of print film, first popularized in the 1890s. These were mostly black and white until the introduction of mass produced color film for still cameras in 1936.

Depending on the fragility of the photographs, you can use a soft leaded pencil to record information on the back of each. Identifying the time period and subjects is most important. If a photo seems too delicate, write out the details on a separate piece of paper to be stored with, but not attached to, the photo.

As your work continues, sort the photos into groups from different time periods. For example, you might place those from the Great Depression and World War II together while those from 1900-1920 might make up another grouping.

Once you've conducted an initial overview, the best part of the process awaits: sharing the photographs with family members, friends and neighbors. Even if you've already identified the individuals portrayed, as well as when and where they were taken, ask your relatives for other details - perhaps a birth date, or the names of a subject's children. You never know what grandma or grandpa might remember! Use those initial questions to delve into interesting memories and important family stories. Think about how they can help you fill in gaps in your family history, or supplement what you already know.

If unidentified individuals remain, it's time to dig a little deeper. Look for clues in the setting. Was that portrait shot outside the old family homestead? What's the make and model of that car in the background? The answers to these and other similar questions can help you further narrow the potential date, and might even spur additional memories.

Finally, pay close attention to clothing. Nineteenth century subjects typically wore their Sunday best, while those from more recent times may be wearing shorts and T-shirts. Women's fashion, in particular, can provide many helpful hints, so pay close attention to dress styles, skirt lengths and fabric choices, among other details.

Once you've gleaned all you can from your photographs, compare the new information to what you thought you knew about your family history and look for inconsistencies.

These shouldn't be viewed as dead ends, but rather as temporary roadblocks requiring additional investigation.

Next week the Missouri State Archives will offer tips for taking trips to family history sites to clear those roadblocks and learn more information.