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

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.

How to deal with heirloom, oversize portraits

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal (February 14-15, 2009 pp. R6) has a terrific article by Kathleen A. Hughes – “The Person over the Mantle”.

Hughes tells the experiences of families in preserving and displaying their old family portraits and her own change of heart in displaying the image of her 3rd Great Grandmother, Mary Plumb Fairchild.
Early on she was offered Mary’s portrait but decided that she didn’t want that “stern” looking woman over the mantle of her fireplace. Thirty years later she had a change of heart and looked into her genealogy and remembered that old family heirloom. Turns out that Mary Plumb Fairchild was “one of the first women to attend Oberlin College, and an early abolitionist. She died at 29 after giving birth to her fourth child”. Now not accepting the offer of the family portrait is one of her regrets – but the portrait is preserved and hangs in the home of a cousin across the country. (Portrait of Mary Plumb Fairchild is from the article).

We have a wall of old family portraits in our home along the landing at the top of the stairs – much like the walls at Hogwarts in a Harry Potter movie – they are hard to miss. The really oversize family portraits still hang at my uncle’s home in New Hampshire.

If you have early family portraits – be sure to make a digital copy of each one – identify them and post them online. eMail copies to members of your family. You could post them for free at; on or similar sites …. and you can join online genealogy sites like and post the digital images there.

But – what do you do if you don’t have a portrait of any of your ancestors?

You could scour the Internet looking to see if a historic image of your relative is already online. You could also search sites like GenealogyToday – a terrific site that regularly posts funeral cards, early printed items and photographs etc.
Another source is old newspapers. I have found thousands of images – photos, etchings of people in 19th & 20th Century newspapers. GenealogyBank is a great source for tracking down old family photos that the family lost track of decades ago.

This image of Daniel Freeman is from the Omaha (NE) Sunday World Herald 26 June 1899.

Obituary key to finding missing heir – Tulsa, OK man receives $200,000

Nicholas Grod of Portland, Oregon used an online obituary to track down the rightful heir to a fortune in US Government bonds that he found hidden in his basement.

KATU-TV (Portland, OR) reports that last year Grod was cleaning out the basement of his Portland, Oregon home and found a homemade box wedged under a shelf. In it he found $200,000 in US Bonds, family photographs, a letter and clues to the person who had left them there.

Nicholas Grod used the Internet to track down the details about the previous owners of the house. He had reached a dead-end in the census – but “but an online obituary led Grod to a grandson named Thomas Fagg who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma.”

From that online obituary Nicholas Grod made contact with Thomas Fagg, now 2,000 miles away, and sent him the box and valuables that he had found hidden in his basement.

Wow – Thomas Fagg was thrilled to receive those family photos – he didn’t have any pictures of his grandfather – he was also pleased to receive the bonds. “There are no words in the English language that can express the gratitude and admiration I have for this man for being so, so honest,” Fagg said.

You can see the entire KATU-TV interview with Nicholas Grod and Thomas Fagg at: