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Q: I have a picture of my grandparents that was taken by Olan Mills. The picture has a number on the back. The number is 433434. Is it just an inventory number or can it tell me when the picture was taken?
A: The number on the back is a file number used by Olan Mills Sr. (1904-1978). He started his picture-taking business in northwest Alabama in 1932, going door to door and developing negatives in his barn. The black-and-white image of your grandparents at right dates from before 1935, when the company switched to a sepia-toned print.
Today, Olan Mills’ proofs have an identification number that tells the company which studio took the picture and when it was taken, as well as the pose. For instance, take the ID number 9801 041501: The first four digits identify the studio; the next six give the date, April 15, 2001.