Around March of 2013 I’ll have a new mystery novel coming out featuring a young genealogist who sometimes stumbles upon long-buried family secrets during the course of tracing her clients’ family histories.
My interest in genealogy is personal as well as research for my fiction writing. When I first began to trace my husband’s side of the family I found the project daunting. Both grandfathers were avid photographers who had darkrooms in their basements. The love of the craft passed down through subsequent generations so many, many photographs accumulated in the family trove. Unfortunately, most were unlabeled and loose in boxes. Task one was to get more info on identifying and classifying old photos. I’ll share some of what I learned here in hopes it might help others who are staring at a big pile of old photos with no idea where to begin.
Let’s start with the oldest photography forms, which in most family collections is likely to be a daguerrotype. This early photography method, named for its inventor Frenchman Louis Daguerre, captured an image on a metal plate with a reflective surface, which gives them an almost mirror-like quality. The photographs were mounted in (sometimes elaborate) cases of differing sizes (conscribed by some fraction of the size of the plate, so they might be called a half plate, a 6th plate or a 9th plate, etc.). It took a long while for the daguerrotypist to capture an image so the subject had to remain very still for five minutes or more. Sometimes hidden constraints or braces were used to hold them in place. Consequently in most daguerrotypes the subjects are posed formally and look stiff and unsmiling.
This form was used from around 1840 until the mid 1850s when it was overtaken by the ambrotype (for a later post). These dates are not absolute, but they’re a reasonable range for our purposes here.
So if you have daguerrotypes in your collection, separate those out and try this:
First off, estimate the age of the person depicted. Then see how that stacks up against the time range in which daguerrotypes were popularly used (above). This can sometimes give you a good pool of candidates for identification. For instance, if a boy in the photo looks to be around 10, and you know from the heyday of the daguerreotype that it was likely taken between 1840 and 1855, it’s probably someone who was born between 1830 and 1845. Check this against the birth and death dates you have for family members and make a list of all the males who fall into that age range. You may even come up with only ONE candidate. Or later you may be able to compare authenticated photos against the one in question, looking for matching facial characteristics to narrow down the candidate pool further.
Sometimes a “best guess” is all you’ll ever get, but put the photos into your heritage or digital scrapbooks anyway, along with a description of your thought processes in reaching your best guess identification (but please do note that it is only a guess unless you have further documentation). That may be valuable information for future family researchers.
The daggereotype above is from the Library of Congress collection. It was taken around 1852 and is of an unidentified member of the Calwater Grays, a Pennsylvania Volunteer Militia,