England Identifying Photographs (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Identification of Photographs[edit | edit source]

Your illustrations, whether photographs or other materials need to be identified. Together with the gathering of oral history this should be any researcher’s first priority as some of the sources of information won’t be around for ever. There are various sources of information:

  • The provenance of the photo should indicate which side of the family it belongs to (unless it is a totally unrelated item such as royalty). If you are shown photos do ask their history, i.e. who did they get them from and when.
  • Position in an album. Albums were often arranged with the oldest generation first, then their children with their families but they may all have been taken at age 25-30! An index to contents may have been made, but later generations may have switched photos around or replaced them with others.
  • Inscriptions on photo itself – the photographer’s printed information, and hand written notations. However names and dates are not always correct, especially if not written at the time the photo was produced.
  • Information from living people - obviously a priority, but don’t restrict your enquiries to relatives. Perhaps their relatives, or friends and neighbours can help you.
  • Just as we do, our ancestors had pictures of their friends, neighbours and those met through occupation, church or social activities, so some of the photos passed down may be of unrelated people. A little research into who they were and why they featured in the album can greatly assist in understanding your ancestor’s milieu. Locating descendants, if that is possible, can also open up new sources of information from people who knew your family for their friends may have known them better than their own siblings, especially with scattered families.
  • Reference books to identify portraits of royalty, actresses and politicians.
  • Other family historians can often identify your photos as they may own similar ones. Conversely, do share your identified photos, for example in FHS magazines, as there is probably another genealogist out there who would be thrilled to see them, leading to further fruitful collaboration.

You should attempt to find out the identity of the subject, the date, the location, and why the photo was taken or illustration bought. Similarly, if one finds an illustration or photograph of a shop, church or house amongst family papers there must have been a reason for someone to save that item. The family historian should always ask herself Why was this picture taken, or this clipping saved? The answer will often provide further insights into the family history. Time periods for different subject material and kinds of photography are shown below.

Chart: Kinds of Photography by Date

Interior scenes
Movie newsreels
Aerial photography
News agencies
Movie camera
Underwater photography

Identifying People[edit | edit source]

Ask questions of the picture such as—is the lady wearing a wedding ring, is there any identification of the trade, or is there anything in the photo that has been passed down such as a christening robe or jewellery? Older relatives’ memories of faces, places and events should be sought as soon as possible. In photographs Victorians always look stern and unsmiling. This was due to the long exposure times needed, the clamps holding their heads still, as well as the poor condition of most people’s teeth!

Assembling a series of pictures of one person and seeing who is with them in each one and correlating with known family information, can be a helpful technique. With snapshots the photographer will be missing from the scene; try to figure out who that might have been—quite often the father or eldest son in the family.

Identifying Events[edit | edit source]

In the days when photography was still a novelty and up until about World War II few people had their photo taken without there being a reason. Some events often commemorated by a professional photograph include:

  • An engagement.
  • A marriage – note placement of brides and grooms families in groups.
  • 50th wedding anniversary.
  • Breeching of little boys (wearing their first pair of long trousers).
  • Joining the army.
  • Professional or trade outing.
  • Formal institutional event e.g. opening of new workplace; business anniversary; conference; school classes were often dated and the name of the school given on a small blackboard or sign held by a child.
  • Mourning.

Informal snapshots could include almost any event, including the above and others such as:

  • Holidays.
  • Family get-togethers at birthdays, Christmas, visiting relatives.
  • Social gatherings e.g. Women’s Institute, church fête.
  • Local sports events.
  • Visits by prominent people.
  • Opening of new building.
  • Accidents.
  • Balloon or aeroplane landings.

Identifying Places[edit | edit source]

The landscapes and buildings in your photo collection should be studied whether they are the main features or backgrounds for family pictures. Perhaps buildings were workplaces, churches, schools, houses, farms or shops associated with your ancestors? Trade and occupation photos can often lead you to identify the actual building, for example a shop in the High Street.

Suburban property reviews and (real) estate agents publicity giving further details can be found at archives or in newspapers. Look closely at the surroundings and background for outdoor photos; if there are farm carts and rural tools then this is probably an agricultural branch of the family, but if the background shows a Victorian two-up-and-two-down terraced house the family were probably lower middle class townsfolk.

Identifying Dates[edit | edit source]

Dates stamped on the backs of photos are dates of printing—but may be reprints of photos taken some time before. Numbers are studio negative numbers which run consecutively thus can be useful in date-sorting a pile of photos from one studio. Photographers used the reverse of cartes de visites and cabinet prints to advertise their businesses, their name and address could be close to your ancestor’s home, or perhaps where they were visiting on holiday or with relatives. In the 1870s it became usual to have the studio name on the front also, and from the 1880s this may be embossed. If a photographer had won a medal at an exhibition he would show this proudly with the year, so assisting you to date the print.

Some photographers did not stay at one address for very long, or perhaps closed their business, so a search through trade directories will be helpful in dating the studio’s existence. Don’t forget that you can use the census to find photographers as well as ancestors! Archives may have listings of local ones’ addresses by date, and may know if their sitters’ records or key to negative numbers survive and where they are. Michael Pritchard has published an invaluable directory, A Directory of London Photographers 1841-1908, for London which has a good history and bibliography for other towns as well. The Royal Photographic Society’s Historical Group has a project to document photographers in towns and cities across the UK.

  • Transport

Modes of transport such as carts, trains, omnibuses, charabancs, trams and bicycles can help date photos and old catalogues can show the styles of prams (baby buggies) at different periods. Items as such installation of telegraph poles or tram lines can be dated by the local archivist and thus assist you.

  • Studio Props

The earliest cartes de visites featured full length figures either standing or seated with a plain or classical background, but later a number of props were introduced into the studio. These are typical of certain time periods, and can be helpful in dating old photographs. Some examples of the earliest use of certain props are:

  • 1850s plain background or seated in a chair with a book.
  • 1860s standing with a curtain or balustrade in the background and perhaps an arm resting on a chair-back, table or writing desk. Small children were stood on chairs. In the late 1860s a painted backdrop of a window showing country scenery was popular.
  • 1870s had the rustic stile, chair or bridge in front of a large rural backcloth, but beware–many photographers had the same backgrounds as they were bought readymade. Boys were posed in sailor suits amongst boat rigging, and girls with baskets of flowers from the 1870s.
  • 1880s used balustrades again, and more elaborate props such as a swing, hammock, artificial rock, railway carriage, & Chinese or Japanese screens.
  • 1890s saw very artificial garden settings, potted palms, mirrors, bicycles and cockatoos, whilst babies were posed on white fur rugs or inside sea shells, and small children on dark fur rugs.
  • Early 20th century featured motor cycles and side-cars, cut-out cars and other new inventions.
  • Fashion in Clothes, Accessories and Hairstyles

Ladies’, gents’ and children’s fashions changed over time and are thus useful in dating photographs. As today, the young adults tend to be fashionably attired whilst older folks and working people may wear outdated modes perhaps ten or 20 years old. Costume will only give an earliest date possible as only the rich could afford new clothes every year. Those with connections worldwide should recognise that fashions originated in France during the 19th and 20th centuries, England followed, and it took even longer for North Americans to adopt the latest styles. Avril Lansdell’s well-illustrated 1985 work, Fashion A La Carte 1860-1900, and the charts and pictures in Robert Pols (1994) works are recommended reference works. A more academic approach with copious line drawings is by Doreen Yarwood(European Costume: 4000 Years of Fashion).

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has the largest collection of costume history material in England, but many other museums have examples, illustrations and other research aids and put on displays, in particular the Museum of Costume at Bath.

Rural men and boys wore smocks into the 20th century, and infant boys wore dresses until age 3 or 4, and may have long curly hair until school age. Dating by shoes and hair style can be more precise than by clothing, the latter being worn for a great many years. Hairstyles changed more frequently and shoes wore out more quickly and have been described by Eunice Wilson in A History of Shoe Fashions.

  • Occupational Costume

Avril Lansdell,Occupational Costume and Working Clothes, 1776-1976, has a section on working class clothes and mentions the work of Munby who collected pictures of working women which are now held at Trinity College, Cambridge and are the subject of Hiley’s book. Other excellent, well-illustrated histories of working clothes include Christobel Williams-Mitchell’s (Dressed for the Job: The Story of Occupational).

Soldiers and Royal Navy sailors typically had their photographs taken in full uniform at the beginning of their active service. Military uniforms can often be identified as to unit and date, particularly if a cap-badge, buttons, shoulder flashes etc. are visible. Your public library has reference books. Avril Lansdell discusses and illustrates civilian uniforms, such as postmen, railwaymen and nurses. Children’s books can be very useful here as they are typically plentifully supplied with illustrations, for example Erik Abranson depicts all kinds of sailors in uniform in his book, Sailors of the Great Sailing Ships.

  • Estimating ages

Remember that people aged much sooner long ago—a mid-Victorian 50-something may resemble today’s octogenarian. Country people and anyone working outdoors could have very weathered faces and hands by the time they were 30 or 40. Children’s ages are easier to determine, so if you have any groups with children in them, especially if you recognise one of them, this would be a good starting point.

  • Identification Technique

If you inherit a boxful of mainly unlabelled, amateur snapshots from roll film set aside an afternoon (or six!) and try this technique:

  • First write down what you know about the photos’ provenance (where they came from).
  • Go through the box carefully and number each photo lightly on the back with a pigma pen. Also label any envelopes (A, B, C etc.) and list the photos in each envelope. It could be important later in the identification process to be able to reassemble the original order.
  • Start a file of cards, sheets of paper or computer document with a section for each numbered photo.
  • Sort the photos into piles by size. This helps to associate a group of photos with a camera, and perhaps a person who took them.
  • Next take each pile and sort further by any distinguishing developers’ numbers or marks stamped on the back, or fancy cut edges, or width of white margins. This groups them into individual films and hence makes a grouping in time.
  • Now take a look at one pile and see if you can identify any person, event, place, or date. These should be written in that photo’s file, and as photos tend to be taken in groups then some of this information may be transferable to others on the same film pile. Identities may not be more than ‘man with large moustache’, ‘garden backing onto railway line’, or ‘same girl as in pictures 18 and 76’ at this stage, but you can build a profile of each photo and each film pile.
  • Go through all other piles in similar fashion, adding all ideas and notes on similarities to your individual photo files.
  • You can now start to compare the piles and make them into a timeline. Try and figure out who took each film.
  • Compare with information and photos of known people, places and events that you already possess.
  • Show them to older family members, for example by sending a photocopy of a group of photos—these may be more readily identifiable than a single photo. Don’t forget to ask older friends and neighbours as well.
  • When sending photos to others to assist in identification it helps to:
  • First photocopy the pictures, perhaps in groups if they are small ones, but with room to write on the page.
  • Carefully store your originals.
  • Number the pictures on the first set of photocopies and keep the set.
  • Make copies of your set of photocopies and mail to relatives.
  • Ask them to mark up and send back, or (if they wish to keep the photocopies) describe them by number.
  • Ask for any names, dates, places and events that they can remember, and also if they have any other photos not in this collection. A collection of old family photos may have been divided between relatives at the death of an ancestor, so other relatives may have others from the set.
  • Follow-ups by phone are simple as you can refer to the picture number.
  • Indicate that you want to be able to share all photos (free or at reasonable cost) with any family member who is interested.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.