life + learning banner

Be an Old Family Photo Detective


Local History

  • The mystery lady in my family photos
    The mystery lady in my family photos
  • Handwriting provides an instant ID
    Handwriting provides an instant ID
  • Tintype, used from 1856 to 1900s
    Tintype, used from 1856 to 1900s
  • James Esson, early Cambridge photographer
    James Esson, early Cambridge photographer
  • This VW Karmann Ghia dates the photo to the early 1960s or later
    This VW Karmann Ghia dates the photo to the early 1960s or later
  • Look at collars, ties and other clothing details to date your photo
    Look at collars, ties and other clothing details to date your photo

Laura (Queen's Square) | March 24, 2020

Do you have a shoebox full of mysteries in your closet?

I’m talking about all those old family photographs -- perhaps inherited from your great-aunt, twice-removed. They’re gathering dust because you have no idea who all those gruff-looking people are. At the same time, you don’t want to get rid of them because they’re a part of your history.

With a long, dark winter ahead, now is the perfect time play photo detective. Just dust off your shoebox, get out your magnifying glass and follow these clues to start solving your mysteries.

Unknown ladyCLUE 1: Your Family's Stories
Bring your photos to the next family event. Not only will your family love to look at your mystery lady’s Gibson Girl hairdo, but someone might actually know a bit about her too. Keep a notebook and write down any stories you hear.


WritingCLUE 2: Writing
An unusual nickname or first name handwritten on a photo could provide an instant ID if only one person in your family tree had that name. Places and dates are also great clues. While it’s often easy to find, the writing might take a bit of work to read. How to decipher old handwriting.


tintypeCLUE 3: The Medium
Most of us can spot a Polaroid, used between the 1950s and 1980s, but can you spot a Daguerreotype, used between 1839 and the 1860s? The technology of photography has changed continually over the last 150 years. To figure out the age of your mystery photo, look at how it is printed and compare it to these photographic processes.


Photographer's ImprintCLUE 4: Photographer's Name and Address
Many old photographers put their name or imprint and location of the studio on the photograph or case. City directories at Idea Exchange or the Cambridge Archives can help you find the time period the photographer was in business. To get you started, here are some early Cambridge photographers:


VW Karmann GhiaCLUE 5: Background and Props
The setting for a photograph may provide clues to location or time period. Early photographs, especially those taken before flash photography in 1884, were often snapped outside, to take advantage of natural light. Any technology in the photo, such as automobiles and music players, can be an instant giveaway.


Clothing Clues - CollarsCLUE 6: Clothing
An army uniform or other fashion details can locate your mystery photo in time. While women's clothing styles tend to change more often, men's fashions can still be helpful. Just look for the details, such as hats, shoes, jewelry, coat collars, and neckties. The New York Public Library Digital Collections has an impressive array of online pictures that will help you date photographs by clothing & hairstyles. Simply search for the object you wish to identify (e.g. collars).


Solve the Mystery!
Finally, to find out who is in your mystery photo, match up any dates, locations or names you’ve collected with other personal information. How do you do that?

Use Ancestry, our free family history resource. You’ll be amazed with what you find!

Be sure to take a look at our Genealogy guide as well as our books on dating old family photos for more information. If you're completely stumped, try posting your photo to a photo-sharing site like Ancient Faces.

Do you have any other tips? Lingering mysteries or success stories? Please share them in the comments below.