6 Tips to Get Started Researching Your Family History

Introduction: Sarah Brooks, from Freepeoplesearch.org, is a Houston-based freelance writer and blogger. Questions and comments can be sent to her at: brooks.sarah23@gmail.com. In this guest blog post, Sarah provides some basic tips on doing your own genealogy.

Researching your family history can be both fun and gratifying. For some genealogists, this research is simply a way to complete an individual family tree by filling in missing names and dates. However, many family historians want to go farther than just collecting vital statistics. For them, the purpose of genealogy research is to get a better understanding of their family stories, family member personalities, and the unique cities, towns, and communities surrounding their relatives.

Whatever your reasons are for researching your family history, the effort will be challenging, time consuming—and worthwhile. Follow these tips to make your genealogy research as fun, rewarding, and easy as possible.

1) Gather Family Documents, Pictures, and Notes

To start your family history search, begin at home. Gather all of the family pictures, letters, and documents you currently have and organize them in archival, acid-free boxes and folders.

photo of archival boxes and folders

Source: Texas State Library & Archives Commission

Next, begin taking detailed notes on what you already know about your family. From where did your family emigrate? Where did they settle? What marriages and children do you know about? After collecting everything immediately available to you, it’s time to move on to the next steps in your genealogy research.

2) Interview Living Relatives

The most knowledgeable and accessible sources of information about your family are your relatives, so you should interview them as part of your family history search. In particular, the oldest surviving relatives in your family—grandparents, great grandparents, and great aunts or uncles—know a great deal about your family’s history and will probably be able to help the most in piecing together your family history.

Depending on what your relatives are comfortable with, you can bring a tape recorder, camera, video camera or just a notebook and pen to fully document the interviews and get as much input as possible from the older generation. While written content on family history is always valuable, so are images, audio, and video, which supplement your notes and capture each family member’s appearance and personality. Ultimately, this multimedia approach to interviewing can help bring your family stories to life.

3) Document Your Family Tree

Finally, as you interview your relatives, begin filling out your family tree. You can design your own family tree as the interviews unfold, or use a pre-designed family tree template to fill in the blanks. GenealogyBank offers a free digital family tree that can be edited with Microsoft PowerPoint. Just visit: “Family Tree Template—Free Download.” Once you are finished filling out the names and dates on the family tree chart in PowerPoint, you can easily print it out. That way you can create both digital and paper copies of your family tree.

photo of a family tree template

4) Back Up Your Genealogy Work!

As much as possible, preserve your genealogy material in different formats and places: store paper copies in archival boxes and folders; and digital copies on your computer’s hard drive, on various websites such as Scribd.com and Pinterest, and on “cloud” online storage sites such as Dropbox, Carbonite, Evernote and Mozy.

5) Find Good Genealogy Sources

After you interview relatives and record their family stories, you should then find additional genealogy sources to corroborate facts, fill in the blanks, and add additional stories. A great place to begin searching for secondary source information is through old newspapers. GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives, for example, offer more than 6,500 historical newspapers that date from 1690 to the present.

screenshot of GenealogyBank's newspaper search page

Historical newspapers are a great way to learn your ancestors’ stories, as they are filled with obituaries, marriage announcements, birth notices, and local news stories that are crucial to understanding and piecing together family history. Obituaries, in particular, can provide valuable information about an individual’s past.

In addition to searching online newspapers, you can also visit libraries in the towns where your ancestors lived. These visits allow you to search local publications, conduct interviews with clerks and historians, and view census information first-hand. Military records and even medical documents are sometimes available for your review. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also maintains an excellent database for genealogical records that can be a big help in your family history research.

6) Filling Gaps and Building Your Family Tree

The key to creating a full, detailed family tree is to be persistent in your search. New information about individuals and communities becomes available regularly, so it might be just a matter of time before you solve family mysteries and fill all the gaps in your family tree.

Whether your ancestral quest is a short-term project or a life-long passion, persistence and creative thinking will lead you to new and fascinating information about your family history.

Related Articles:

Great Family Tree Genealogy App: Tree Connect by RecordSeek

I am constantly looking at genealogical websites, apps and tools. I recently found this terrific free app “Tree Connect,” powered by RecordSeek.com—a Real Time Collaboration company product.

With just a few clicks, this app will add a hyperlink connecting any record or photograph I find anywhere on the Internet to the online family tree I keep on FamilySearch.org. It only works with FamilySearch, not with any other family tree website.

Here’s how the Tree Connect app works.

Step One

Go to RecordSeek.com’s website to get the free app.

screenshot of the RecordSeek website to download the app "Tree Connect"

Credit: RecordSeek

Follow the simple one-line instruction and drag and drop the green “Tree Connect” button to your Internet browser’s bookmark bar. They call this button a “bookmarklet.”

Now you’re ready to go.

Step Two

Find a photograph or record anywhere on the Internet that you want to hyperlink to your family tree.

For example, here is a photo I found on the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division website.

photo of Admiral Harry Pinckney Huse

Credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

This is my cousin Admiral Harry McLaren Pinckney Huse, and I’d like to add a link to this photo on my online family tree’s Harry McLaren Pinckney Huse page.

Step Three

When you see the family photo or document you want to link to your FamilySearch family tree, simply click the Tree Connect button on your browser’s bookmark bar.

screenshot of the download button on the RecordSeek website for the app "Tree Connect"

Credit: RecordSeek

Step Four

Tree Connect brings up a form for creating your source link.

Edit each line of the metadata for accuracy and completeness.

screenshot of the RecordSeek website for the app "Tree Connect"

Credit: RecordSeek

The Tree Connect app populates each line on this form with the metadata from the website that contains your target photograph.

For example: the Library of Congress labeled this photo as: HUSE, McL. ADMIRAL

I want to change that to his full name and life dates.

I’ll also add a brief descriptor (Photograph) and where I found it (Library of Congress).

So I will change the source title to:

Harry McLaren Pinckney Huse (1858-1942). Photograph. Library of Congress.

Once my editing is done, I click Save.

Step Five

Using Tree Connect, find your ancestor on FamilySearch.

Fill in Tree Connect’s “Discover Your Deceased Ancestors” form to bring up your ancestor in your online family tree on FamilySearch.org.

screenshot of the RecordSeek website for the app "Tree Connect"

Credit: RecordSeek

Next, click Search.

Step Six

Select your target ancestor from the list of result hits.

screenshot of the RecordSeek website for the app "Tree Connect"

Credit: RecordSeek

Click Attach and you’re done.

collage of screenshots from RecordSeek and FamilySearch for Admiral Harry Pinckney Huse

Credit: FamilySearch and RecordSeek

With just a few clicks I have saved a link to the photograph I found on the Library of Congress website to my online family tree.

I can click and see this photograph of my relative at any time.

The Tree Connect app automatically includes a bibliographical citation and a link to the original source so I will always know where I found this family photograph.

This handy tool lets me link to the photo without violating any copyright, since I am only linking to it—not downloading and adding a copy of the photograph to my online family tree.

This is an excellent free application to help with your genealogy.

How to Scan, Save & Share Your Family Photographs Online

The digital age is a new world for genealogists. We need to have not only research skills but the ability to scan and digitally preserve the many documents and photographs that we use daily.

This gives us the 21st century opportunity to add the actual genealogical documents and even photographs of our deceased relatives to our family tree software on our personal computers, or on an online family tree.

This online sharing of genealogy work enables anyone—be it family members or other researchers—to easily see your family history findings and the supporting documentation instantly.

Yes—it is a great day for genealogy!

Scanning to Digitize Your Family Photos

Scanning is easy and a home scanner can be purchased for a nominal cost at most stores. Copy centers and even drug stores routinely offer scanning services often for just $1 per image.

You are scanning and preserving your family’s past so you’ll want to make sure you do it correctly. Start by reading Geoff Rasmussen’s book Digital Imaging Essentials (Middleton, Idaho: Author, 2013). 150 pages.

cover of book "Digital Imaging Essentials" by Geoff Rasmussen

This easy-to-read instructional book tells you everything you need to do to prepare and follow through on digitizing and preserving your family’s documentation. To buy a copy visit the Legacy Family Tree Book store.

Scanning is as simple as putting the old photograph or document on your scanner and pushing the start button.

screenshot of a scanner in operation

Within seconds the image is scanned and sent to your photo image processing software.

I use Google’s Picasa. It is free and has all of the features I need to crop, trim, sharpen and enhance my scanned document or photograph. Within a few minutes I have a digital copy of the item ready to be attached to my genealogical files.

Backup & Storage of Family Files

I keep three copies of my genealogical files.

This redundancy builds in an ongoing backup of my research in three locations, and helps to ensure that my latest research will be easily discoverable by any of my cousins 24/7.

I store my genealogy information—along with the digital copies of my photographs and documents—online on FamilySearch.org and Ancestry.com. In addition, I keep a copy on my laptop using Legacy Family Tree genealogy software. I have an external hard drive to back up my laptop and I also use the online cloud storage service Carbonite. There are many options for cloud storage available to ensure that your family history records stay safe even if something ever happens to your local hardware.

Upload and Share Your Family Photos & Records Online

It is easy to put your family pictures and records online. Here is how you do it on FamilySearch.

First you open the personal page of any relative.

screenshot of the ad photo feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

Click on the Photos tab and you will see the green add symbol. Click on it to add a photograph for this person.

screenshot of the attach photos feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

Simply drag and drop the family photo you scanned to this plus sign and the application will grab it and attach it.

Take a moment to edit your family photograph by identifying each person.

You can add the date and place the photo was taken and any commentary associated with that event.

screenshot of the edit photos feature on FamilySearch

Credit: FamilySearch

That’s it—you’re done.

screenshot of FamilySearch page for Tuan Dieu Ly

Credit: FamilySearch

It’s that simple to preserve your family photos and make them easy to share online with family members and other genealogists.

It is important that genealogists preserve their family information online. By putting their genealogy research and supporting documentation online, genealogists are able to share it with all researchers.

Begin preserving your family’s past by digitizing your research and putting it online today.

How to Date Old Ancestor Photographs with Early Photo Types

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how you can date old, undated family photos by first figuring out what type of photograph they are, and uses old newspapers and other sources to illustrate different types of photos.

Do you have a box of old, undated family photos somewhere up in the attic—or maybe buried in the back of some closet? Have you wondered how you were ever going to figure out who these family members might be, since the old photographs lack inscriptions or dates?

Genealogy is a lot like detective work, gathering clues to make the pieces of your family puzzle fit together. Old, undated family photographs are pieces of evidence, clues that—if you examine closely enough—might yield some answers.

By knowing a little of the history of photography, you might be able to solve the mystery of those old photos by first recognizing what type of photograph they are—which in turn will help you narrow down the date range for when the photo was created. This blog article will help you do that.

The First Affordable Camera

We’ll start with a brief primer on the history of photography. Many think that the photography revolution began with George Eastman and Frank Brownell (of Kodak) in February of 1900, when they introduced the “Brownie,” the first affordable camera. (See http://www.brownie-camera.com/ for everything you ever wanted to know about this early camera for the mass market.)

Here is an advertisement for the Brownie camera from a 1921 Washington, D.C., newspaper.

What the 2A Brownies [Cameras] Do, Evening Star newspaper advertisement 14 August 1921

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 14 August 1921, page 67

Heliography

However, in my opinion, the true photography revolution started at least 50 years prior, with the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833). His 1826 heliograph “View from the Window at Le Gras” became the first permanent photograph. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicéphore_Niépce.) It was created with a camera obscura, a device used by artists to project images on a wall or screen. Niépce captured his view by projecting onto a pewter plate coated with a type of asphalt called bitumen of Judea. After a long eight-hour exposure time, the image became affixed.

First Permanent Photograph, 1826, Mobile Register newspaper cartoon 24 September 1983

Mobile Register (Mobile, Alabama), 24 September 1983, page 31

It’s doubtful that you’ll find a heliograph in your personal ancestor photo collection, but with any luck, you’ll find a variety of other types of photos. Perhaps your family pictures are identified—but in all likelihood many are not, so narrowing time periods for the creation of each photo is important in trying to date them.

Some of my earlier GenealogyBank Blog posts provided other tips for dating undated photographs, including one showing how historical newspapers can assist greatly with photo dating by comparing the clothing of people in your undated photos to clothing styles shown in old newspaper advertisements. (See a list with links to these photography-related blog posts at the end of this article.)

You can also use historical newspapers to learn how to recognize photographic types, and also to research photography studios, as shown by the newspaper articles used in this blog post.

Photographic Timelines

To start, familiarize yourself with photographic timelines, such as the timelines available in the list of websites below. Although there are numerous types of photographic processes, most of your old photos are probably ambrotypes, daguerreotypes, tintypes, cabinet cards or carte de visites (CDVs), along with some lesser-known types such as cyanotypes.

Representative Samples of Different Photographic Types

To see examples of different types of photos, use your favorite search engine such as Google. After searching for a specific type, such as a daguerreotype, click the image option.

screenshot of Google search page showing photographic images

Credit: Google & Wikipedia

Ambrotypes

A distinctive characteristic of an ambrotype is that the image is a positive image created on a transparent sheet of glass, by what is known as wet plate collodion printing. James Ambrose Cutting is credited with the process, which dates to the early 1850s.

The Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ambrotype has several examples, and mentions that many were hand tinted. If you think you have an ambrotype take note of the casing, as the style can also be a clue to the time period.

Carte de Visites and Cabinet Cards

Although these two types of photos are different, I’ve chosen to group them together because they are commonly confused. Both types were printed on paper or card stock, and originally created through a type of albumen printing which was used to bind images to paper.

Carte de Visites (CDVs or Cartes)

The Carte de Visite was made in 1850 by Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard (1802-1872), and is known as the first pocket-sized photograph. It is also referred to as a calling or visiting card.

He created a negative and made varying sizes, but typically his photos were small and in the range of 2 3/8” x 4” to 2 ½” x 4.” The smaller size of CDVs offered the advantage of portability and affordability. If you are lucky, you’ll find the photographer’s name imprinted on the back.

This example, rescued from an antique shop near Austin Texas, is tentatively labeled “George W. Bohun.” I believe it was shot by Rudolph Uhlman who, according to a University of Missouri-Kansas City article “A Preliminary Survey of Photographers and Artists in St. Joseph Missouri 1859 to 1889” by David Boutros, worked at 225 Edmond Street between 1876 and 1885. (See http://www.umkc.edu/whmckc/Scrapbook/Articles/StJoePhotographers.pdf.)

photo of a Carte de Visite showing George Bohun

Example of a Carte de Visite from the author’s photo collection

Cabinet Cards

Cabinet cards were introduced in 1864 by a British studio called Windsor & Bridge. As they were larger (typically 4” x 6” or 4 ½” x 6 ½”) and printed on card stock, they were more durable than other paper types.

The photographer’s name can be printed on the front or the rear, and the presentation (font, coloring, etc.) can also be a clue to the time frame of the photo. (See Marshall University’s article at http://www.marshall.edu/library/speccoll/virtual_museum/photographers/cabinet-cards.asp.)

This cabinet card from my photo collection identifies the photographer as James S. Cummins. Research shows he lived from 1841-1895, and if my guess is correct, this sepia-toned image was probably taken between 1875-1885.

photo of a Cabinet Card

Example of a Cabinet Card from the author’s photo collection

Cyanotypes

The discovery of the cyanotype process is credited to scientist/astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), but botanist Anna Atkins (1799-1871) gets the credit for applying the technique to photography. She used it to record images of plants for her research, as described in this 1982 article from a South Dakota newspaper.

Lockwood at Dakota Midland [Hospital Art Gallery], Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 29 June 1982

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 29 June 1982, page 13

Most cyanotypes are small. Popular in the 1880s, you can still find them today, and the photographic process is published on the Web.

This cyanotype from my collection is of an ancestor born in 1875, and I estimate it was taken between 1893-1900.

example of a Cyanotype photograph

Example of a Cyanotype photograph from the author’s collection

Daguerreotypes

To learn more about Niépce’s colleague Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), see these resources:

Daguerre is credited with inventing a new photographic process known as daguerreotype.

His technique also incorporated the camera obscura, but by introducing copper plating with a thin layer of silver exposed to the fumes of iodine crystals, he was able to capture the images. Daguerreotypes were very popular from the 1840s into the 1860s or early 1870s.

After his death, Daguerre was described in this 1851 Massachusetts newspaper as “a scene painter and dioramist in Paris, an ingenious mechanic, and tolerable chemist.”

obituary for Louis Daguerre, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 16 July 1851

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 16 July 1851, page 2

Daguerreotypes (or dags) changed the world of photography, offering our ancestors their first opportunity to sit for portraits. Many appear to be serious or grimacing in their portrait—which, some people today speculate, was from having to sit still for a long time while their picture was being taken.

However, this may be somewhat of a myth. Exposure time ranged from 60-90 seconds, and after 1845 the sitting time was reportedly just a few seconds. If one wanted multiple pictures, there was no way to make copies of the original—so multiple sittings would have to occur. (See http://mentalfloss.com/article/16677/daguerreotype-qa.)

This 1841 ad from a New York newspaper promoted a daguerreotype exhibition to benefit local charities.

The Daguerreotype Exhibition, Evening Post newspaper article 4 February 1840

Evening Post (New York, New York), 4 February 1840, page 3

This obituary from an 1851 New Hampshire newspaper called Daguerre “the celebrated discoverer of the daguerreotype,” claiming that with this invention “he succeeded in immortalizing his name.”

Death of M. Daguerre, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper obituary 14 August 1851

New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 14 August 1851, page 2

Dags of many famous people can be found online, including some of Abraham Lincoln at www.lincolnportrait.com.

Tintypes

Tintypes are another commonly-found type of photograph—although they were not created on tin.

The tintype production method is similar to that of ambrotypes. (Other common names of similar photographic processes are melanotype and ferrotype.) Tintype sizes ranged from 2 3/8” x 3 ½” to 4” x 5 ¾.”

Sometimes they were created with a wet plate and at other times with a dry plate. The image was underexposed and darkened by lacquering or other methods, and then coated. Interestingly, the metal used was not tin, but a very thin iron that resembled tin. (A magnet can determine if there is metal in your picture.)

Since tintypes were often taken at carnivals, many have a fun quality about them. Notice in this tintype (a Library of Congress image), a man was seated before two mirrors placed at right angles, in order to provide five images.

Library of Congress image of a tintype photograph

Credit: Library of Congress

Tintypes were often sold in a paper sleeve for protection. However, if your tintype still has the original paper sleeve, don’t be fooled by the location printed on it—it may not be correct. According to this 1901 article from a Kansas newspaper, tintype sellers had a variety of preprinted sleeves from distant locations that came “in handy for people who like to put up a bluff that they have been further away from home than they really have.”

The newspaper article imagined a conversation between a tintype seller and his customer:

“What place did you say? Coney Island or—”

The maid looked at the man sheepishly. “Let’s put it New Haven,” she said. “That will sound better than Coney Island.”

Tintypes May Prevaricate, American Citizen newspaper article 8 November 1901

American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), 8 November 1901, page 3

To learn more about tintypes and the other commonly-used photographic processes, revisit the timeline at Phototree.com (http://www.phototree.com/identify.htm). The site also has tips to help you identify the characteristics of pictures.

Although this is just a sampling of photographic types, hopefully this article gives you a few ideas on how to identify and date your family treasures.

Go get that box of old family photos and look at them closely. Can you identify what type they are, and thereby limit the date range for the people in the picture? Good luck with your detective work!

Related GenealogyBank Blog articles:

How to Date Old Photos of Our Ancestors with Early Fashion Trends

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers and historical books to show how illustrations of fashion trends in hats can help you date an undated family photograph in your collection.

One of my earlier GenealogyBank blog posts, “How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers,” showed how to date an old photograph by comparing the clothes worn by the people in the photo with clothing illustrations from vintage advertisements in historical newspapers.

One of the points I made in that article was that if you can find a newspaper advertisement that matches a hat found in an old photograph, use the newspaper to establish the time period that photo might have been taken. This is an important determination, as it can eliminate relatives not from that time period as possible candidates for the people in the photo.

In today’s blog article, I’m following up on this topic of how earlier fashion trends found in old newspapers can help you date an old, undated photograph by focusing on hats.

First Newspaper Photograph Published in 1880

Photographs published in newspapers can be used to study early fashion trends—but only after 1879.

That’s because it took until 1880 for the first photograph to be published in a newspaper. Prior to that time, you’ll have to rely on newspaper illustrations and other aids to date those troublesome shoeboxes of unidentified, undated family photos.

The Library of Congress’s illustrated Guide on Pictorial Journalism, which I recommend reading, explains:

“The first photograph published in an American newspaper—actually a photomechanical reproduction of a photograph—appeared in the Daily Graphic on March 4, 1880. Before that time it was common practice for American editors to enlist artists to sketch and report on news events, from steamboat explosions to the battles of the Civil War.”

In this 1875 illustration from the Daily Graphic, note that New York Senator Francis Kernan’s image was derived from a photograph by Gardner, of Utica, New York.

illustration of New York Senator Francis Kernan, Daily Graphic newspaper article 23 February 1875

Daily Graphic (New York, New York), 23 February 1875, page 4

Prior to 1880, we must be creative to find clothing illustrative of specific time periods.

I’d also like to stress that old photographs may not have depicted ancestors in everyday dress, as photographers were notorious for utilizing props, lighting, and fashion accessories to make black and white results more appealing. They soon learned that dark colors needed to contrast with light, or the results were one dark mess.

Advice for getting a good photographic result was common, as demonstrated in this 1882 article from the Kalamazoo Gazette that is full of recommendations on how to dress for a photographic session.

Dressing for a Photograph, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper article 26 May 1882

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 26 May 1882, page 2

The article advised: “The best materials for ladies to wear when about to sit for a photograph are such as will fold or drape nicely, like reps, winceys [plain or twill-woven cloth], poplins, satins and silks. Lavender, lilac, sky blue, purple and French blue take very light and are worse for a picture than pure white. Corn color and salmon are better.”

Later on, the article noted that ladies “with dark or brown hair should avoid contrasts in their costumes, as light substances photograph more quickly than dark, and ladies with light hair should dress in something lighter than those whose hair is dark or brown.”

Don’t necessarily believe that your early photographs are extremely old. Of course, it’s possible that a rare ambrotype from the 1850s or daguerreotype from the 1860s lies in your collection, but more likely you’re looking at later photographs.

Examples of Early Hat Fashion

So, given these considerations, is there much value in examining earlier newspapers for American fashion trends to help with your family photos identification?

Yes, but you might find it easier to target specific attire—such as hats.

These 1834 advertisements from the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics include simple illustrations: one of a buffalo, and the other of top hats. From these old newspaper ads, one gets the impression that our ancestors paraded around in attire made from animal products such as skins from buffalo, lynx, muskrat, seals and even swans.

Notice that gentlemen were purchasing beaver and satin hats, and that the youth of earlier days wore caps of sea otter, fur seal, leather and cloth. Boas, fur capes, and fur trimmings were available for the ladies.

ads for hats, Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics newspaper advertisements 22 November 1834

Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 22 November 1834, page 4

If you are interested in researching early hat fashions, search for articles in connection with religious and ethnic groups. Some describe their costumes in great detail.

This 1850 article from the Washington Reporter remarked on the collarless coats and broad-brimmed hats worn by the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Why the Quakers Wear Their Hats, Washington Reporter newspaper article 4 September 1850

Washington Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania), 4 September 1850, page 1

This 1860 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer discussed Panama hats, made by South American Native Americans from the bombonaxa plant.

Panama Hats, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 16 October 1860

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 16 October 1860, page 2

Examples of Old Advertising Cards

Before I finish this article about dating family photos using period fashion clues, I’d like to mention that there is a most exciting option within GenealogyBank to examine clothing illustrations: advertising cards.

By exploring the Historical Book Collection you’ll find examples of advertising cards dating back to the 1700s. Many are works of art, and if you search by keywords such as “Hats,” “Hat Maker,” or “Hat Manufacturer,” you’ll learn that this industry was of greater importance than most realize.

Advertising card from 1790 for Sam Sturgis, hat maker

Advertising card from 1790

Although C. C. Porter’s Hat Manufacturing Company probably didn’t market to Native American Indians, this advertising card from around 1830 has a fine example of an Indian costume and headdress.

Advertising card from 1830 for C. C. Porter Hat Manufacturing Company

Advertising card from 1830

This next old advertising card shows a dog swimming in the water fetching a top hat—suggesting it must have blown from the head of the man behind him. Luckily, H. D. Tregear was known to manufacture waterproof hats!

Advertising card from 1830 for H. D. Tregear  hat maker

Advertising card from 1830

You might think waterproofing apparel items was a new invention, but out of curiosity I searched the historical newspaper archives and found reports of waterproof hats as early as 1765. Apparently there was a European waterproof hat called a Nivernois that became popular. (I’ll leave it to you to research how this feature was achieved.)

notice about waterproof hats, Georgia Gazette newspaper article 21 February 1765

Georgia Gazette (Savannah, Georgia), 21 February 1765, page 2

Notice in the following advertising card, from Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works) in 1837, a sampling of lady’s bonnets and the clothing of those wandering on the lawn in the illustration. If those bonnets were made of straw, it’s not likely many have survived—making these illustrations of great historical importance.

Advertising card from 1837 for Mann Swift & Company (North American Straw Works)

Advertising card from 1837

Here is an advertising card from John W. D. Hall of Taunton, which shows greater detail of top hats than found in the first example above.

Advertising card from 1840 for John W. D. Hall hat maker

Advertising card from 1840

This fashion trend remained popular with men for decades, as seen in this 16 May 1861 photograph of President Abraham Lincoln seated next to a table, upon which he’s placed his prominent top hat.

photo of American President Abraham Lincoln seated at a small table

Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-15178. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a17427/

Hats off to any of you who can find an ancestor’s photo with a top hat!

As these illustrations, photograph and advertising cards have shown, pictures from old newspapers can show you what clothing people from a certain time period were wearing—and just might provide the clue you’ve long been looking for to date certain undocumented family photographs in your collection.

Record Your Family Stories: How Did Your Parents Meet?

How did your parents meet? My Dad told me recently how he met Mom over 70 years ago at the University of New Hampshire.

photo of Bill and Ellie Kemp

Tom Kemp’s parents Bill and Ellie. Photo from the author’s collection.

The students were going to Thanksgiving dinner. Since it was a special occasion, they had the men and women eat together. They each filed in separately, sat down—and there she was, his bride-to-be, seated across the table from him! It happened again the next month. For Christmas the same process took place and in they filed, separately: men on one side and the women on the other. And there she was again, seated directly across from him! Given their series of serendipitous encounters they knew their love was meant to be and a courtship began. When the nation was attacked at Pearl Harbor, my Dad enlisted. Following World War II they married—and a few weeks ago they celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

Newspapers have preserved the stories of our lives—including Bill Nye’s interesting story of when he first met his parents.

Bill Nye Visits His Birthplace, Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article 12 June 1885

Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 12 June 1885, page 3

Mid-1800s American humorist and newspaper columnist Edgar Wilson Nye, aka Bill Nye, remembered the day when he first met his parents—“a casual meeting” that over the years forged itself into a “powerful bond” between his parents and himself. Read his poignant and humorous account here: http://bit.ly/12wNaMx

Bill Nye was having fun with his audience, but it does raise the question: how did you meet the family members you love? And how did they meet? How did your parents meet?

Record your family stories, and pass them on to the rising generation.

And share your family stories with us. Tell us how your parents or grandparents met, or when you first met your parents, in the comments.

How to Use Old Newspapers to Research Family Stories & Photos

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches online newspapers to figure out who the companions are that appear with his grandmother in an old family photograph.

Recently my awesome Mom (God bless her as she is 92, still going strong, and loves to help me with our family history) gave me a couple of old family photographs. One was a photo of my paternal grandmother, Ina Cottle Phillips, with the notation on the back “On the Boardwalk with the Wades.” As you can guess, as a genealogist I was off and running trying to discover the “Wade” portion of that note. Who were these companions of my grandmother?

Photo of Ina Cottle Phillips on the Boardwalk with the Wades

Ina Cottle Phillips, seated in the rear, “On the Boardwalk with the Wades.” Photo from the author’s collection.

First, I did what every genealogist should do: ask the elders! I asked my mom, who had a recollection that when my grandmother first arrived as an immigrant in Cleveland, Ohio, she got a job with a Wade family. Ah ha! Next, I reviewed my family tree notes and found that I had a reference, long forgotten, that said my grandmother was the “traveling companion” of one Mrs. Wade of Cleveland. Now this story was getting interesting! I wondered who might, in the early 1900s, have had a “traveling companion.”

Next stop was searching the old newspapers at GenealogyBank.com. It wasn’t long before a fun story began to unveil itself. First I happened across a vast number of references to Wade families in Cleveland, but one in particular stood out. An old newspaper article published in the Cleveland Leader explained that one Wade family gave substantial donations around Cleveland, including a large piece of land for what, still to this day, is known as Wade Park.

The Gifts of the Wades, Cleveland Leader newspaper article 10 May 1902

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 10 May 1902, page 6

I dug deeper into the historical newspaper archives and soon found a beautiful drawing from the Plain Dealer showing the Wade Memorial Chapel in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery.

illustration of the Wade Memorial Chapel, Plain Dealer newspaper article 25 December 1898

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 25 December 1898, page 1

Sensing that I might be on to something I started looking for obituaries, and sure enough found an exceptionally informative one in the Chicago Herald that gave quite a biography of Jeptha Wade. The old obituary’s lead was that Mr. Wade was the man who saw the true value in a newfangled device called the telegraph, and started a company known to this day: Western Union. This obituary also tied in Cleveland and Wade Park.

Demise of Jeptha E. Wade, Chicago Herald newspaper article 10 August 1890

Chicago Herald (Chicago, Illinois), 10 August 1890, page 11

Next I sharpened the focus of my genealogy research to include both the Wade and Cottle names and got a hit, but when I opened the newspaper article I was surprised to find that the Cottle was not my grandmother: it was an obituary for her brother George. I learned that he, too, had a connection to the Wade family. The obituary stated that my great uncle George worked for the Wade family in their Wade Realty Company for 35 years. A fun aside was discovering that he was also a gardener for John D. Rockefeller, but that will have to be a different story for a later time!

George B. Cottle, Plain Dealer newspaper article 27 January 1966

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 January 1966, page 61

Now the pieces were beginning to fit. Brother George immigrated first and got a job with the Wade family. Could he possibly then have vouched for my grandmother and helped her get a job as traveling companion for Mrs. Wade? Perhaps on one of their trips someone took the old photos of her that I now hold in my hands.

It has been tremendous fun learning about this aspect of my Cottle ancestors and beginning to understand the possible history of those photographs my Mom gave me. Now to finish the task! Thanks to some more genealogy detective work I have located the living descendants of the Wade family and have reached out and asked them if they might review the old photographs. Hopefully, they can identify my grandmother’s companions in the photos—and if I am really, really lucky, they just might.

Now…I wonder if anyone out there needs a “traveling companion” today. I’d sure be happy to apply for the job!

Dating Old Family Photographs with Civil War Revenue Stamps

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how to determine the date of undated, Civil War-era family photographs using revenue stamps affixed to the back of the picture.

Do you have Civil War-era photographs of your ancestors that are undated? As this genealogy article explains, tax stamp legislation passed by the Union in 1864 might provide a valuable clue to help you finally assign a date to those old family photos, allowing for deeper Civil War family history research.

Stamp Duties, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

In order to fund the rising costs of the Civil War, the federal government passed an act on 30 June 1864 requiring that tax stamps be affixed to various goods, including:

  • Proprietary Medicines and Preparations
  • Perfumery and Cosmetics
  • Friction Matches
  • Cigar Lights and Wax Tapers
  • Photographs, Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes
  • Playing Cards

Although this legislation achieved the intended goal of raising revenue, it was an extremely unpopular tax—especially for those desiring photographs of family members soon to be separated by war.

explanation of stamp fees for photographs, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article, 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

Fees were assessed upon the selling price of photographs, ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, with different-colored stamps for the various fees.

  • 2¢ stamps were blue or orange and assessed on images 25 cents or less
  • 3¢ stamps were green and assessed on images between 26 and 50 cents
  • 5¢ stamps were red and assessed on images 51 cents to one dollar
  • For images exceeding one dollar, in addition to the 5¢ stamp an extra 5 cents was assessed “for every additional dollar or fractional part thereof”

As with most laws, there were exceptions and specifications that had to be followed.

exceptions to the stamp tax on photographs, New York Herald-Tribune newspaper article 13 April 1865

New York Herald-Tribune (New York, New York), 13 April 1865, page 6

“Photographs and other sun pictures, which are copies of engravings or works of art, or which are used for the illustration of books, or which are so small that stamps cannot be affixed, are exempt from stamp duty. In lieu thereof, they are subject to duty of 5 per cent ad valorem.

“The price of a photograph by which the stamp duty is determined is held to be the price which is received for such photograph, including the case or frame, as well as any labor which may have been expended upon the picture.

“Imported articles, when sold in the original and unbroken package in which they were imported, are not subject to stamp duty, but they become so as soon as the packages are opened.”

The process was for a photographer to affix a stamp to the back of an image, and cancel it by adding initials and a date.

Civil War-era photograph with a revenue stamp affixed to the back

Civil War-era photograph with a revenue stamp affixed to the back

In the old photograph example above of a Carte de Visite (CDV), which shows the back and front of the image side-by-side, the picture was taken at Delong’s Gallery on Locust street in Fairbury, Illinois. The 5 cent stamp indicates that the photographer charged from 51 cents to $1 for his services.

Photographers often designed their own system of stamp cancellation. The hand-written date appears to be 11/11, but more likely was 11/4 (Nov. 1864), with the information under the numbers indicating either his initials or an internal reference. It was not 1861, as revenue stamps are only found on images 1864-1866, with the final repeal of the Stamp Act on Aug. 1, 1866.

For more information on Tax Stamps, see eBay’s Guide to Tax Stamps on Antique Photography.

How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how the fashion pages in old newspapers can help you date family photographs based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing, especially ladies’ hats.

If you’re having difficulty dating family photographs, you could invest in a clothing reference to help you figure out the time period based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing. Another option: you can browse the thousands of old fashion advertisements and style pages in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives.

I recommend the latter, as there is no larger archive for vintage fashion ads and style images available online.

vintage photo and illustration of ladies' hats c. 1898

Vintage photo and illustration of ladies’ hats c. 1898

Take, for example, the undated photo on the left, which was located in the William Edward Burghardt Du Bois Collection of the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph Collection.

The identity of the African American woman featured in the old picture is unknown, but her hat is consistent with Victorian-era fashion. Not only are there elegant embellishments (feathers), but the bodice and high collar are reminiscent of the Victorian time period. The head positioning (looking to the side) indicates she wanted her hat to be a central theme of the photograph.

I wanted to determine if the estimated date range of 1899-1900 was accurate.

Was the photographer identified? No, but if he/she were, then one could use newspaper advertisements and obituaries to learn the work location, and life and work spans of the artist.

Was the medium (gelatin silver print) used at this time? Yes, and the size of the print is consistent with known examples.

Were there newspaper advertisements that supported this clothing style? Yes, with the closest fashion advertisement match located in the Kansas City Star on 16 January 1898.

This doesn’t indicate that the woman in the photograph resided in Kansas City—just that she wore a fashion trend common in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Taking all these factors into account, it does give credence to the 1899-1900 estimate, or perhaps a wider range, say 1898-1901, since fashion trends spread from east to west, and often took time to appear in outlying regions.

Search Tip: Keywords to Find Fashion Advertisements

What keywords should you search for to find fashion advertisements in newspapers? To find fashion ads and style pages in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives, try search keywords such as “Dame Fashion,” “Latest Fashion” or “Millinery.”

illustration of lady's hat, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper 27 May 1892

Illustration of lady’s hat, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 May 1892

Some time periods, such as the Civil War, are more distinctive than others, but early fashion advertisements were not as visual (simple drawings, or merely descriptions).

photograph of Miss Chapman

Photograph of Miss Chapman

Once you have narrowed an old family picture to a specific date range, construct a collage of fashion images from newspapers, and cross-reference with photos that have known dates.

Establish the “earliest” possible date your ancestor’s photograph could have been taken, based on the earliest date when the fashion was first advertised in newspapers.

And don’t forget to browse your ancestor’s hometown newspaper, taking note of fashion editors and which stores were advertising. You may find an exact match to a family photograph.

If you’ve been able to date a family photograph using this method with fashion ads in GenealogyBank, please share it with us in the comments!

 

Treasured Discovery: Only-Known Photos of Ancestors Found in Old Newspapers

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott tells about finding the only-known photos of two of his ancestors in old newspaper wedding announcements—and a surprising engagement notice that told him something he never knew about his own mother!

Summertime! The livin’ is easy and traditionally it is the time for weddings. My bride and I just celebrated our 37th wedding anniversary a short time ago and it got me to thinking about how much I have gained in my family history and genealogy work from searching for engagement notices and wedding announcements in GenealogyBank.com.

Mr. & Mrs. Scott Phillips Wedding Photo 1975

The author’s wedding photo from 1975.

As many of us go about developing and nurturing our family trees, I think you’ll agree that one of the best aspects of that work is discovering photographs of our ancestors. Let me tell you, few places that I have found beat newspaper engagement and wedding stories for personal photos—sometimes the only picture anyone in the family has of a particular ancestor. I have had terrific success in my family tree with these types of articles.

A great example was the newspaper article I recently found when researching my Havlic branch. I discovered the wedding announcement for Eleanor Anna Havlic as reported in the Plain Dealer on 30 September 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio. Not only was I thrilled that there was a picture of my ancestor, but it showed some lovely period dress for a 1928 wedding. Additionally, I was treated to the names of parents, spouse, in-laws, addresses of both, the new couple’s home address, bridal party members, wedding date, and the name of their church.

Mrs Louis J Beran Old Marriage Announcement

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 30 September 1928, page 50.

Another nice find for me was the wedding story of another cousin, Margaret Tager, again in the Plain Dealer (27 August 1961) in Cleveland. Once more I was excited to find an old wedding photo that illustrated the current fashion, this time of the early 1960s, plus addresses, parents’ and in-laws’ names, the name of the church where the ceremony was held—and there was even a mention of where both the bride and groom attended college. As an added treat, the newspaper article explained where the couple honeymooned.

Margaret Ann Tager Marriage Announcement

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 27 August 1961, page 108.

In the case of both of the above family members, the old newspaper articles provided me with the only photos I have of these particular ancestors, which make them all the more important to my work, my family, and our family tree.

Oh, and don’t forget that every so often you just might find one of those “ah-ha” moments we all enjoy so much in genealogy. I had one myself not long ago.

After working on one of my grandparent’s branches I was having some fun searching different family surnames to see what I could find. As I was running my grandmother’s married name lo and behold I found an engagement announcement! I clicked on the article to find…my mother had been engaged one time before becoming engaged to, and then marrying, the man who was to become my father. This was a fact that had not been a topic of discussion in my life ever before.

Thank goodness my mom made the choice she did or I wouldn’t be here writing this today!

That was a close call…and a really fun discovery.