Three Steps to Identifying Ancestors in Old Group Photos

By Maureen A. Taylor

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identifying ancestors in an old group photo

You have an old family picture. You think you know who it is … but then again, maybe not. This is the predicament of Lisa Jalufka, who owns this old group photo.

Here are three ways to sort out who’s in the picture.


1. Start by dating your old group photo.

We have only clothing to go on here. There’s no photographer’s imprint or mat to give us clues. The people mostly obscure the backdrop, though we can see a fur rug.

So let’s look to the women’s sleeves. Two women have dresses with sleeves that can narrow the time frame.

women's sleeves old group photo

This woman’s sleeve is slightly puffy at the shoulder. Also, her bodice has a yoke.

women's sleeves old group photo

This woman’s sleeve has a fabric cap at the shoulder.

Both women are young, likely to be wearing current fashion. The sleeve styles suggest a date of the late 1890s.

Learn more about how to “read” clothing clues in old mystery photos in my book Family Photo Detective.


2. Check your family tree.

You can see an older man in the center of this picture. He could be the father of some of the individuals,and grandfather to the children.

Estimate the older man’s age. Let’s say he’s in his 70s. Of course, people show age at different rates, so you have to take that into consideration.

If the picture was taken in 1899 and he’s 75, then he was born circa 1824. Does this describe anyone in Jalufka’s family tree?

There is also a baby in the picture, who looks younger than a year. So we also could look at Jalufka’s tree for someone born around 1899.


3. Group the faces.

Using a family tree together with the photo, we can try to recreate families based on how they’re posed and their resemblances.

identifying ancestors in an old group photo

For instance, these two men bear a striking similarity. They’re also seated near one another. The man on the left is the oldest person in the portrait. The man on the right could be a much younger brother or his oldest son. Jalufka can check her tree for families fitting either scenario.

Follow these three techniques with your mystery photos, and see if it makes identifying folks in a big family portrait a little easier.