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Who ARE These People?

by Christine Hayes - 1 Comment(s)

PC 957Some Lovely Ladies

Postcards from the Past, PC 957

Do you have family photographs? Photos can be very a helpful tool in piecing together the story of your family. They are MORE helpful if you know who is shown in the image.

The fashions in Victorian photographs can be extremely useful in narrowing down the time frame for when a photo was taken. Younger women, especially those of the middle or upper class, were more likely to keep up with changing fashion trends, so their fashions can pinpoint a very specific time frame. Older women tended to hang on to the fashions of their youth and were slow to adopt new styles, if at all, so their clothing styles may indicate an earlier time frame than the photo was taken. Note that babies or toddlers with curls and frilly dresses are very often boys! We have a reference book in our collection called Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840-1900 by Joan L. Severa, and it is a wonderful resource for identifying when the details on period fashions were stylish. Another book, Family Photographs, 1860-1945 by Robert Pols can also aid in identifying your photos. We also have several books and reproduction catalogues for retail stores, such as Eaton’s and Sears, which can help identify more recent fashions. (These tend to be a better representation of the clothing worn by everyday people than contemporary fashion magazines would be.)

Sometimes the photographer (often referred to as “Dad”) included a car in the photographs to keep track of the year that the photo was taken. (Now you know why all of your family photographs were taken in front of the family car.) There may be a date visible on the license plate, or you can ask a "car guy" (or girl!) to identify the vehicle. This can help you narrow down a time frame for an image. (My dad and uncles can usually tell you the year and make of the car, who owned it, when he or she sold it, who they sold it to, and what the owner bought next.)

There are books available that list photographers, their studios, and include where and when they were active. Photographers and their studios sometimes moved often, so a book may tell you exactly when a photographer's studio was at a specific address. (The address is sometimes printed on the photograph or cardboard backing.) An example from our collection is the Western Canada Photographer's List (1860-1925) by Glen C. Phillips, available in our Community Heritage and Family History room at the Central Library. Trying an internet search of the photographer's name and location may also be helpful in finding further information.

Are you a scrapbooker? When using old photographs in your scrapbook, it is a good idea to use copies. Cropping photos to fit your scrapbook page may remove details from clothing styles or from the background that can provide information on the location and time frame that the photo was taken. The name of the photographer printed on many photographs can also aid in identification, and this often appears on the back or around the edge of the photograph. Cropping the edges or covering up the back of the photo can obliterate this helpful piece of information.

Protect your photos! Sunlight is very harsh on old photographs, and photos need to be stored in a dry location. Those popular old photo albums with the sticky pages can be very hard on your images, and things can fall out and be damaged or lost, so it’s a good idea to transfer your photos to a new album. You can also scan your images onto your computer to preserve them. This allows you to share them easily with family, print copies, or digitally edit them. Some types of photographs, such as instant Polaroids, may fade over time, so scanning will save your images from being lost or damaged. We have a book called Preserving Your Family Photographs: How To Organize, Present, and Restore Your Precious Family Images by Maureen A. Taylor if you would like tips on caring for your photographs.

Most importantly, label your photographs!!! I have several in my collection that I know are extended family members of my ancestors, but it saddens me that there is now likely no way to identify who they are. We all have photographs that we can identify because we know the people in them, but our photos aren't labeled. (Even if you aren’t exactly sure who is in the picture, an “I think this is Mary’s daughter” or “This girl is a Barnes” note on the back is a good idea.) Don't let your family photos end up in a box at an antique sale because they are anonymous. Labeling your photographs allows them to be cherished by future generations, and gives you a good excuse to sit down and talk with senior and extended family members. (I’ve done this, and it’s a lot of fun!) I once located a distant relative in Ontario who was kind enough to share with me her collection of photographs related to our common ancestors. One of her unidentified photographs was of a small girl in a white dress. I already had a different photograph of this girl with her parents in my collection, taken at the same time, so I was able to tell the relative the name of the girl in her photo.

Don't discard old photographs! Even if your images are not identified, the information they contain may be useful to a museum, a family member, a historical or genealogical society, or a costumer. Ask around! And remember, just because you can't identify the people now doesn't mean that they will always be a mystery. Someone in your extended family may be able to solve the puzzle in the future. (I recently purchased identified photographs of a young brother and sister at an antique sale, and have located their descendants online. I have since contacted the family to try to get the images back to where they belong.) You can also try posting unidentified photographs online at, a website to reunite found photos with their families. It’s a long shot, but you never know!

Street Scene, Calgary

Postcards from the Past, PC 1589

PC 1589


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by Joan Miller
What lovely old photos. Thanks for the tips :)

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