Using Photographs in Your Family History Research
Editor’s Note: The following is a lightly edited and updated post originally authored by the late Carolyn L. Barkley. All of the family photos are from her personal collection, and should be accredited to her unless otherwise noted.
Technology in today’s world provides us with multiple ways to capture a moment in our family’s story – from grabbing our iPhone or iPad to capturing the moment of video or a digital SLR camera. Although photography has enjoyed a long history, photographs have been available to the average individual for a relatively short period of time. The following discusses the evolution of photography and how using photographs in your family history has evolved along with it.
The basic principles of optics and the camera were known as early as the fifth century B.C.E. More specific interest, however, began in the 1660s when, using a prism, Isaac Newton discovered that white light was composed of different colors. Throughout the 1700s, the camera obscura fascinated scientists interested in creating an image of their surroundings. From the linked Wikipedia article, “The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside, where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with color and perspective preserved. The image can be projected onto paper, and can then be traced to produce a highly accurate representation.” Mirrors then create a right-side up image. (Side note: Edinburgh, Scotland, features a camera obscura as one of its tourist attractions.)
Daguerreotype, Ambrotype, Tintype
Additional discoveries ensued. In 1837 Louis Daguerre began creating images on silver-plated copper coated with silver iodide. The image was then developed (taking thirty minutes!) with warmed mercury. This medium fell out of favor by 1860, in part because only one image could be developed from each exposure, and also because the final product tarnished and scratched easily. The daguerreotype was followed briefly (1854-1865) by the ambrotype, an image produced on glass. The date of either of these formats can often be determined in part by the case or mat surrounding the image. For example, a daguerreotype with a plain silk interior dates from between 1840 and 1845, while an ornate foil-stamped mat dates from between 1853 and 1855. The National Media Museum Blog has a very helpful post on how to spot a collodion positive or ambrotype photograph.
A format which became financially more accessible to the average family, however, was the tintype, produced between about 1854 and 1900. Some of us may have examples of tintype images in our family archives as many soldiers had them taken during the Civil War. This video is part of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum special exhibit – Remember Me: Civil War Portraits, which shows the process of creating a Tintype photo. Tintypes later became widely available at carnivals from the late 1880s and through the 1890s. Again, the elements of the tintype can help date an image, with a paper mat indicating an image taken between 1863 and the 1880s, while paper sleeves were used between 1880 and 1900. For example, based on its paper sleeve and my knowledge of the couple in the photograph, I believe that the tintype image shown below was taken ca. 1889, the time of my great-grandparents’ (Grace Lillian Dodd and Edward Albert Smith) wedding.
Carte de Visite
Two other formats dating from the mid- to late-1800s also brought photographs within the means of many families. These images often included family members, either individually or in groups, to commemorate an important event such as a wedding, engagement, a new baby, death, etc. The first of the two formats was the carte de visite. First developed in France in 1854 by photographer André Adolphe Eugene Disdéri, this type of photograph, usually sepia in color, was printed on thin paper which was then mounted to a thicker paper card. One of Disdéri’s greatest innovations was the ability to place multiple negatives on a single plate, thus allowing the subject of a photograph to purchase multiple copies at a reasonable price. These photos imitated the size of a “calling card” (2.5”x4”). The carte de visite image below is believed to be a photograph of my granduncle, Eugene Henry Smith (born 1866). While I was unsure of his age at the time the photograph was taken, the photography studio’s advertisement on the reverse side indicates 1880, when Eugene would have been fourteen.
The carte de visite began to be replaced in the early 1870s by the cabinet card (4¼”x6½”), although the earlier, smaller format would continue to be produced for another decade. The larger format of the cabinet card proved to be more popular, although the photographic process was essentially the same. A cabinet card may be dated based on the card stock, card colors, borders and lettering. The image below is a picture of my great-grandmother (Grace, again) as a young woman. She was born in 1865 and was married in 1889, so my rudimentary dating of the photo based on the gold advertising text on black card stock dates the image reasonably accurately between the late 1880s and the 1890s.
It is interesting to note that the cabinet cards I have in my family collection usually have been identified with at least a name, and sometimes by both a name and a date. However, I have a sizeable stack of unidentified cartes de visite, suggesting a practice of trading such cards among friends.
Cyndi’s List includes multiple links to articles on photographs and their use in genealogical research. A fascinating website is the intriguingly named Dead Fred’s Genealogy Photo Archive, where you may be lucky enough to locate a relative’s photograph through a surname search, or where you can upload a picture, found at an auction or flea market, in the hope that it may help another researcher.
One of the best sources to assist you in using family photographs in your research is Maureen Taylor’s Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogical Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries (Family Tree Books, 2013).
Other useful resources include:
Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929 by Family Chronicle (Mooreshead Magazine Ltd., 2000).
Family Photographs and How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton (Countryside Books, 2008).
Fashionable Folks Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900 by Maureen Taylor (Picture Perfect Press, 2011).
Fashionable Folks Hairstyles 1840-1900 by Maureen Taylor (Picture Perfect Press, 2009).
Forensic Genealogy by Colleen Fitzpatrick (Rice Book Press, 2005).
More Dating Old Photographs by Halvor Mooreshead (Mooreshead Magazine Ltd., 2004).
Photo Restoration Kwick Guide: a Step-by-Step Guide for Repairing Photographs with Photoshop Elements by Gary W. Clark (PhotoTree.com, 2013).
Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs: How to Identify, Interpret and Preserve Your Family’s Visual Heritage by Maureen Taylor (Betterway Books, 2000).
Cover Image Credit: Three quarter portrait, young Civil War soldier in kepi. Cased tintype, ninth plate. By Beinecke Library [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.