How to Figure out Which Holiday Is Shown in Old Family Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Here’s a picture problem that family photo historians often encounter: Photos of an unnamed, unknown celebrations. It could be local event, a national holiday, or a gathering of relatives for some family event. All too frequently, it’s unclear.

For instance, let’s look at Flag Day.

Flag Day, June 14, commemorates the adoption of our flag on June 14, 1777. Flag Day wasn’t an official occasion until 1916, when President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation.

old photo of Flag Day
A crowd of thousands gathers around the Washington Monument for a Flag Day ceremony in 1918. Library of Congress.

Flag Day isn’t a federal holiday, but some cities still celebrate the day with parades, including Fairfield, Wash.; Appleton, Wis.; Quincy, Mass.; Troy, NY; and Three Oaks, Mich.

Tips for “reading” old photos of patriotic holidays

Flags and bunting are common during other holidays, too, such as Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Veterans Day, so it can be difficult to determine the occasion for a patriotic picture. Here are a few tips:

  • Watch for signs and banners in parade photos. You may need to use a photographer’s loupe, or scan the photo at high resolution and zoom in on your computer screen.
  • Search newspaper websites and local history sites to see how the towns in which your ancestor lived celebrated the day. You might find an article about the very event shown in the photo.
  • School children were often photographed carrying flags in schoolyards for Flag Day.
  • If you see a flag in the photo, count the stars. Every time a new state joined the Union, the flag gained a star (Hawaii was the last state, in 1959), helping you date the photo. Visit for photos of flags over the years.


Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor: