Your grandmother had one.
So did your mother.
I'll bet you also have one.
In the back of a high closet shelf, in the basement, in your attic, you have some kind of a container. It may be an old metal box that held cookies a lifetime ago, an old shoebox or hatbox, a modern plastic container with a snap-on lid, or even a handy-dandy sealed plastic bag stuck in a drawer.
The contents may include dried flowers, holiday and life-cycle cards, and many old photographs. If this is your personal collection, you'll likely know who the people were and when the image was taken. That's good.
However, these treasured possessions may have belonged to your great-grandmother. She, if you are very fortunate, may have written lightly in pencil on the back. The lady in the strange hat is Cousin Helen, you learn, but you've never heard of anyone with that name.
If you are even luckier, the inscription may indicate that it's a holiday gift from "your dear brother in London." You've never heard of anyone who had a brother in London.
If your relative was somewhat obsessive, he or she may have recorded the names, dates and places on each photograph. In this case, your genealogy colleagues around the world will congratulate you on your good fortune!
Likely, however, the container is filled with old photographs, not a one identified.
Why should they be? Their owner knew who every single person was and how they were related, but their owner's been gone for 20 years or more. You weren't interested in family history when they were alive.
In any case, their owner could simply not comprehend that, decades into the future, someone would be interested in these old images and what they represent.
Most probably, your ancestor merely wanted to drive you crazy by saving what seem to be valuable images and not identifying a single one. "Why should I make it easy for them? Let them work at it!"
Let's hope that you will break this chain of unknown images.
Here are some guidelines to help you preserve the contents of those old boxes.
First, realize your ancestor did you a great favor by keeping the prints in the dark to avoid fading, even though they may have been stored in unfavorable conditions in garage, basement or attic. In the old days, when pencil was used more than today, those inscriptions on the back did not eat away at the photos.
Many late 1880s-early 1900s photos are in good condition because they were carefully developed, but many modern 1950s-1970s photos have disintegrated, turning magenta, with the advent of low-quality machine processing.
Electronic media is always under discussion. Life expectancy of these is a matter of uncertainity. How many people do you know with old reel-to-reel tape recorders, Beta videos or eight-track tapes?
Experts advise scanning old photos onto good-quality CDs for back-up, and also having a professional photographer make negatives from the images.
Once a set of negatives is made, new prints can be ordered and the original stored safely. The originals, negatives and prints should be stored correctly in acid-free envelopes, archival plastic sleeve, matted or boxed.
Do's and Don't's
- Never glue down a photo; never use tape, except for special archival tape.
- Never use an album with adhesive pages, where photos are placed on an adhesive backing, and covered with a plastic sheet. It is impossible to remove them without major damage. Scan pages if possible, take digital shots, or ask a professional photographer to copy individual photos.
- Never write on the photo back with a ballpoint, hard pen or hard pencil. Use a very soft pencil, write lightly, or use a special soft-point pen. Never write on the front, or circle a person in a group! Use a tissue paper overlay and write names on that.
- Black-and-white prints have longer lives, especially if protected from light. Discolored modern prints cannot be preserved, but may be scanned; color adjustment may be possible.
- Old slides with glass covers retain humidity and condensation. Mold and fungus produce black spots. Scanning can save the best; copy to CDs for backup.
- Work with CDs and photo copies; keep originals out of the light.
As your research proceeds and you find more family, share your photos and ask to see theirs. They may have the same photograph but details may have been recorded on their copies.
MyHeritage has great photo-handling capabilities and you can upload your photographs to the website and see if any matching images are in the database. Go to Face Recognition, click Try It Now, upload a photo and click Run Face Recognition.
I checked my grandfather's photo to see if there were any matches, and composer Bela Bartok popped up at a 73% match.
How can you tell the year or place of an old photograph?
Old European photos generally are mounted on a card with the photographer’s name and address. That's one clue. The photographic process used gives dating hints, and clothing details, interior decorations or hair styles offer more information.
There are books with dated photographs arranged by decade to compare images by details, such as More Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929, published by Family Chronicle magazine.
The introduction, by expert Maureen Taylor, provides details on photographic processes, papers, formats, clothing (sleeves, buttons, collars, neckware, etc.) and hair styles for men, women and children.
Light Impressions Direct - Archival supplies and answers to questions.
American Museum of Photography - Interesting content.
City Gallery - A guide to using photographs in genealogy research.
Sally Jacobs' Practical Archivist blog offers good tips.
Do you have an photograph-related question? I'll try to answer it and look forward to your comments.