Identifying old photographs that may be in up in the attic or in the back of a closet is always a challenge. Sometimes we know it is a family member, but which one? Identifying the time frame of the photo is crucial to our identification of who is in the photo. Recently, I’ve discovered a website that has been useful for helping me learn more about old photos. This is the Photo Detective blog administered by Maureen A. Taylor, perhaps the country’s leading expert on identifying old photographs.
The blog is hosted by Family Tree Magazine and located at blog.family
treemagazine.com/photodetectiveblog/. It is a running commentary on different photographic images submitted by viewers in which Taylor solves a mystery having to do with the photo. Rather than the visitor having to read through the entire blog, there is a navigation feature on the left in which the viewer can search for particular topics, such as children’s clothing, identifying accessories in photographs, men’s facial hair and neckwear, restoring damaged photos, etc. The blog has been running since 2007 and can also be searched by date.
A typical mystery might run like this: a viewer submits a photograph that is labeled “grandfather Jones.” But the owner of the photo does not know which family member wrote this. So this could possibly be a photo of the actual owner’s great grandfather or great-great grandfather. Taylor analyzes the clues in the photo, including apparent age of the subject of the photo, clothing style, hair style, any accessories, type and size of photo, pose, and type of mounting. She looks for other clues written or stamped on the front or back of the card the photo is mounted on. Then she is able to date the photo, sometimes to within a year.
Other techniques Taylor utilizes are straight out of the CIA. She once identified a rare and previously unknown photo of Jesse James by comparing the right ear on a man in an unknown photo to the right ear of Jesse James in a known photo of the outlaw, documenting that the unknown photo was indeed of Jesse James.
She has written several books, including Preserving Your Family Photographs, Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900, Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album, Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900, Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs, and The Last Muster (a collection of rare photos of people who participated in the Revolutionary War and lived to the era of photography). Her personal website can be found at www.maureentaylor.com/ and a very interesting article from the Wall Street Journal about her techniques is at online.wsj.com/article/SB119214969916756801.html.
The University of Vermont has a wonderful website of its digital archives that helps with dating old images of all kinds in old photos. Located at www.uvm.edu/
landscape/dating/index.php, the site offers a tutorial and then systematically displays links to what the user is looking for. Categories include: transportation, roadside features, agricultural features, buildings, human features, and other features.
When dating old family photos, the user can simply click on clothing/hair under human features to get a list of decades from 1850 to 1950. Then click on a decade and get a list of specific items — women’s clothing, hats, hairstyles, accessories, men’s clothing, hats, hairstyles. Click on one of these to get a description of the style of that decade and pictorial examples.