3 Tips to Identify Your Old Family Photos of Groups

By Maureen A. Taylor

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Identify Old Family Photos Group

If you could do one thing for Family History Month in October, what would it be?  Find the time to work on your family history is probably on your list.

Here’s an idea: If you set aside 30 minutes once a week, by the end of the month, you’d have spent a couple of hours trying to solve a family history mystery.

You can use this time to work on a few of your old photo problems. The images that you know could tell you more about your family, if only you could study the clues.

This old group photo from the Library of Congress is a good example. One person is identified, which gives us an opportunity to tell even more of the photo’s story.

That person is Emile Berliner, in the back row on the left, holding a child. This German-born inventor gave us the gramophone and the phonograph record.  His inventions brought recorded sound into our ancestor’s homes.

Three things you can do to help date and identify old family photos of groups

  • Examine the picture to find the youngest person, which will help you anchor the image in a time frame. Here, it’s the child Berliner holds, who could be 3 or 4 years old.
Emile Berliner with child

  • Find the oldest individual. It looks like Berliner is the oldest person in this group portrait. He was born in 1851 and lived to 1929. Because he’s at least middle-aged in this image, so that gives us a general time frame.
  • Check the census closest to your estimated photo date. Clothing clues suggest that these individuals posed in the first decade of the 20th century, when women’s dresses had pouched fronts and large hats were fashionable. I’d check both the 1900 and 1910 US census records to try to determine who’s who. Does your photo fall into that nasty gap from 1880 to 1900? (The 1890 census, remember, is lost.) See if there’s a state census or use the closest extant federal census that has the most family members.

The 1900 census, below, shows that the Berliner family lived in Washington, D.C. Who you think is who in this photo, based on the family’s census listing?

1900 census berliner family

I’ll give my analysis in next week’s Photo Detective blog post.