Searching Ancestors – What Photos Can Reveal When Searching Ancestors

If you come across an old photo while searching ancestors, don’t dismiss it as just something nostalgic to look at. These family photographs can reveal a wealth of genealogical information that can greatly assist you in an ancestors search. You can tell what the occasion may have been, where it was taken, social standing, and most importantly the era it was taken in. Searching ancestors is a science at times, and the analysis of old photos is one of them. In this article we’ll explain what to look for in 19th century photos, and how it can help you when searching ancestors.

Types of Photos You May Find when Searching Ancestors

Knowing the different types of 19th century photos you may encounter when searching ancestors will help you to pinpoint a date as to when the photo was taken. Photography, like any industry, has progressed through the ages, and different materials and styles were used at different times in its history. Most of the old photos you will find from this era will be card-mounted pictures. This process began around the mid-nineteenth century, and was used right up until the mid 1930’s. Though there were many different forms of it, the major ones were; Cabinet Card, Carte-de-Visite and the Stereotype. These forms of photograph each had a unique standardized size, so being familiar with each one can be a huge help in pin-pointing dates when searching ancestors.

FAMILY TREE TEMPLATES: Free, professionally designed, high quality family tree templates
FREE FAMILY TREE REPORTS: See how easy it is to get a free family tree report

Cabinet Card Photos

Cabinet Card mounted photos were first introduced in 1866, and were especially popular in America. It is easily distinguished from other card mounted types by its standardized size of 41/4" x 61/2" (10.8 x 16.5 cm). If you find an old photo of these dimensions, especially if it’s a portrait, you will know it was taken between 1866 and just after the turn of the century. Other features that can help you when searching ancestors are:

  • If it’s a Group Portrait - These became popular only after 1879.
  • Hairstyles – If the women in the photo have frizzy hair, this style was popular during the mid 1890’s.
  • Clothes - Wide sleeves for women’s dresses were fashionable between 1893 and 1897, while a bodice would indicate a date nearer the turn of the century.

Carte-de-Visite Photos

The Carte-de-Visite was introduced to the USA and Europe around the mid 1850’s and continued to be used for about forty years. Knowing its unique size – 21/2" x 4" (6.35 x 10.1 cm) also makes it a valuable tool when searching ancestors. The different features of card mount, the image, and the photographer's personal impression frequently enable these photos to be accurately dated to within several years of their being taken.

SEARCH ONLINE ANCESTORS: Free online ancestry search tips and secrets
FREE GENEALOGY FORMS DOWNLOADS: You don’t have to be a professional genealogist to use these free professional genealogy forms.

Things to Look for in Photos When Searching Ancestors

The sizes and features of photos can be helpful in estimating dates when searching ancestors, but also pay attention to the features of the subjects in the photographs.

For instance, if the women are wearing loose clothing where the fabric falls freely, this would be a style from the mid to late 1890’s.

Pay attention to who is or who is not in the picture as well. A family portrait without the father present may reveal that he had died. However if they others are not wearing any sort of mourning clothes, the father could have been away at sea or in the army.

Are they wearing clothes that may have been used to celebrate a marriage or christening? Paying attention to detail is critical when scouring photos discovered while searching ancestors, as picking up on something obscure could lead you to more ancestry records.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with the different eras of photography. It’s not only interesting, but will be a great weapon to add to your genealogical arsenal. Searching ancestors can be a painstaking ritual, but knowing these sorts of things can greatly increase your chances of success when searching ancestors.

comments powered by Disqus