Finding clues in old photos. Photo: Thinkstock
The women in the two formal portraits from the late 19th century look enough alike to be sisters. Both have dark eyes, a strong chin, and a firm set to the mouth. You remember that your great-grandfather had two sisters who came to New Zealand with him. But which sister is which?
Strong resemblances will often tell you what side of the family the subject in a photo is from, but after that you're on your own. You have to rely on clues in the photos themselves to help you learn the identity of the subjects. Family photographs from both the 19th and 20th centuries, fortunately, are filled with clues that will aid you in your search.
A solid knowledge of your family is your best ally. Begin by asking elderly relatives specific questions about family members they might have known. Rather than asking what they remember about Aunt Matilda, ask instead how many brothers and sisters Matilda had; whether her hair and eyes were dark or light; how tall she was in relation to her sisters; and if she had any outstanding physical characteristics. The answers will help you recognise Matilda if you should come across her in an old photo.
Once you know the names of family members from earlier generations, public records can also be of help. You might know, for instance, that your great-grandfather came to New Zealand from England in the 1880s. But did you know that not only did his brother and sisters come with him, but his parents as well? That means that one generation further back left a paper trail with clues that might include names and a specific birthplace in England.
Familiarise yourself with the number of children in different generations and their ages in relation to one another. Knowing the birth order will help you recognise your ancestors.
If Uncle Roy tells you that Great-Aunt Anna O'Leary was taller and more slender than her sister Mary, it makes it much easier to distinguish between the two in photographs no matter how similar their faces are. If you look carefully you can spot the breadth of a midsection or unusually long legs even if Anna and Mary are in separate pictures.
Look also at the studio imprint on cabinet cards or other types of photographs that have a border. A quick check in a city directory will reveal the years that a photography studio was in business at a given address. This will help you date the photo and might aid in its identification.
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