I love old pictures and postcards. I have been known to buy old photographs of people I don’t even know just because I can’t stand the thought that they are lost to descendants and languishing in an antique shop. While I have generally been able to talk myself out of purchasing photographs of unknown people (not always but most of the time, I have a “thing” for gilded age hats and early vehicles), I do give in to old postcards. I inherited a collection of postcards from my Dad that were a combination of those he received from family and friends during his years at Southeastern Bible Institute in Atlanta and at Central Bible Institute in Missouri and some he bought because he liked the picture or theme. Some of my favorites are postcards of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp from WWII, possibly because I too was in the Army (Vietnam era). They are great fun to look at.
Since I started my own collecting addiction, I’ve tended to focus on old postcards of Florida, especially the panhandle and rivers throughout the State. Panhandle postcards can be hard to find. As I mentioned in a previous post, people outside Florida tend to focus attention on some areas and mostly ignore the rest. So, you can find tons of mid-20th century postcards of Pensacola and Panama City Beach but if you want postcards of Milton or Marianna or Crestview, you may have to look for a while. It gets even harder as you go back in time, but that’s true for all locations. There are a few available on occasion, including some of our rivers and industries (lumber/turpentine).
Let’s start with old family photographs. If you are a family historian, you probably love to collect pictures and scans of your ancestors. Unfortunately, sometimes photos come down to us and we don’t have a clue who is in the photograph. So, before I share a few pictures, let me put forth a challenge and heartfelt request. Please, if you take photographs, especially using your phone, move them off the phone, back them up, print the best ones and write in the names on the back. Don’t write hard but do identify the people in the picture and add a date. Or, put the photo in an archival sleeve and identify the people on the sleeve (better choice). Same goes for shared scans of old photographs. Otherwise, your descendants will be mumbling under their breathe and calling into question your sanity and consideration of those who would come after you.
If you are looking at old photographs trying to figure out who they are, there are a couple of things that might help. How did you come to have the photo? What do they know about the photo, or think they know? Take that information but make an effort to connect it to other information that confirms or denies it. In other words, if you got the pictures from a cousin on your mother’s side of the family, it could be someone in your joint lines or it could be someone in your cousin’s non-shared lines. Sometimes people jump to conclusions. We all do, even though in some cases we shouldn’t.
Look for a date stamp on the edge or back of the photo, look at the clothes and try to put them in a time period. Even generally, it can help to narrow down the possibilities. What media is the photograph in, tintype or paper/card stock? This can be hard to determine if it comes to you as a scan so ask if the sender has the original. Look for any scribble on the back that might help or a photographer’s stamp. There are books and Internet resources that can help with the process of dating and identifying people in old photographs. Narrow your options down and then, if possible, compare the people in it to other photographs you have of the same people. Document all of that and put it with the photograph. I will share some examples of the above in my own families from northwest Florida.
First is my g2-grandfather, William Coplan King, Jr. I found this photo in a shoe box in the home of my mother’s oldest sister. She didn’t know who it was but I could tell from the card stock and clothes that it was from the late 19th century and since Aunt Lucille said the pictures came from her parents (my grandparents), I knew it had to be someone in my maternal lines. On the back was some scribble in pencil which took a bit of time to decipher but it mentioned a Howell that I knew was connected to us in the King line. This man was identified as his grandfather, according to the writing. I was very excited that this might be my g2-grandfather. A few years later I connected with a 1st cousin of my mother on her maternal side and he sent me a picture of Roseda Sawyer King (William’s wife) that he had gotten from his mother. I sent this scan to him to ask if he had seen the face in any of his mother’s pictures and he emailed back that it was indeed William Coplan King, Jr.
The first photograph is the one that my cousin sent me and identified it as Roseda Sawyer King, wife of William Coplan King, Jr. For years this was the only photograph I knew about. Then a couple of years ago another cousin (daughter of aunt mentioned above) invited me over to scan pictures. We went through them slowly until we got to two tintypes that she said she thought was our great-grandmother Lucennie Hinote Barrow. I had a picture of Lucennie and I was pretty sure the two women were not the same. Lucennie was heavier and her nose was smaller (that can be deceiving in these old photographs!). While Lucennie lived during the period of tintypes, I thought this woman was older than Lucennie would have been during their hay day (for this type the late 19th century). I also doubted that the Barrows, and especially Lucennie, ever went and sat for a portrait. I am told she was incredibly shy. The more I looked at it the more it triggered something in my brain. I found the first photograph on my computer and looked at them together. The clothes are the same and so is the face. The Kings were big into photographs so going to pose for one certainly fit the family.
These last pictures are of my Dad’s side of the family. Dad was an only child and his father was killed in an accident just outside Bonifay when Dad was a couple of months old. These pictures came to him from his mother and he knew that I didn’t know most of these people so in the last few years he was alive he wrote information on the backs of the photos. The dates on the front are compliments of my paternal grandmother who dated photos religiously. So as I went through this box of photos after Dad died, I met his paternal grandmother’s mother, his paternal grandparents (that’s my Dad on the right next to his grandmother), his father’s siblings and one of his uncle’s by marriage (I love the pose and the truck!) that I was blessed to get to know, along with my great-aunt, while I was in college. I can’t tell you what a wonderful surprise it was to connect faces with names in my genealogy for a side of the family I’m still trying to piece together.
When gathering pictures for a family history, don’t forget to look for any old pictures of the communities where your ancestors grew up, or photos that would represent occupations and businesses. Pictures of northwest Florida towns can be found at Florida Memory and some that could be pertinent to your family’s history might be found at American Memory. Here are a few that I’ve collected over the years. The first is a gristmill in Escambia Farms. While built much later than the one my ancestor ran in Oak Grove, I am told it is similar, though bigger. The turpentine mill at Baker represents a key industry in the upper part of Okaloosa Co, FL (I don’t have a good photo of a moonshine still deep in the woods. That too was a key industry in northern Okaloosa Co.), and last the downtown area of Bonifay in the early 1940s, a few years after my Dad moved with his mother to Columbus, GA (I found postcards in his collection with the address a few years ago).
The wonderful thing about most postcards: you don’t have to do all of that work I just covered above. The downside is they will likely not be photos of any of your ancestors but they may document their livelihood (lumber/turpentine) and/or where they lived (rivers and towns). Just keep them safe in archival sleeves and display them so they are out of sunlight and really bright lights for long periods of time. Then enjoy.
I even have a few that aren’t Pensacola. I love old river view postcards. The last two aren’t in the panhandle but they are in Florida and represent how our ancestors traveled and what a turpentine still looked like.
Photographs add so much to our enjoyment of history and genealogy. While family photos, original or scanned, should be cherished and shared, don’t forget other kinds of photographs that can add to your understanding of your ancestors’ experiences. Don’t forget other kinds of family materials either. Recently, I made contacted with a cousin I hope to get to know better. She has shared photos and letters from my grandmother to hers (they were sisters). What a joy to read my grandmother’s observations written in her own handwriting, though I have to admit between the creative spelling and the “chicken scratch” (that was my grandmother’s term for her handwriting) it has been a challenge to decipher so far. I’m thankful though. I exchanged letters with this great-aunt back in the early 90s and her chicken scratch was even worse than my grandmother’s!
An update on the progress of my The 1st Florida Cavalry Union Volunteers in the Civil War ebook and paperback editions. The ebook is live at Amazon, the hard cover is also available there now and the paperback should be showing in a day or two. Until next time!
- Photo Organizing Practices: Daguerreotypes to Digital by Maureen A. Taylor
- Preserving Your Family Photographs: How to Care for Your Family Photographs from Daguerreotypes to Digital Imaging by Maureen A. Taylor
- Cased Images & Tintypes Kwik Guide: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Tintypes by Gary W. Clark
- 19th Century Card Photos Kwik Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide to Identifying and Dating Cartes de Visite and Cabinet Cards by Gary W. Clark