Helpful Hints History Research

Old Photos Can Provide Many Clues

Written by Marge Bitetti

Old photos have a hidden story to tell. When you learn to look for tips you can become a detective in solving the hidden story that a photo tells you. Is the photo in question black/white or color? This is perhaps the most noticeable clue to revealing when the photo was taken. Home photos taken in color became popular in the 1950s and 60s. Prior to that most amateur photos were black/white.

Looking at a particular photo, was it taken inside or outside? If it was taken inside a home, notice what the furniture looks like; the chairs, tables and lamps can reveal the decade. If the photo was taken outside perhaps the weather can help you determine the location. For example, is there snow? What type of trees are visible in the photo? If the photo was taken in front of a house or building, is there anything that indicates the street or house or building number? If there are shadows in the photo it can provide clues regarding the time of day that the photo was taken. Here are some other details to notice as you look at old photos:

  • The style of clothing worn
  • Cars or horse and buggies
  • The hair styles
  • Background details in the photograph
  • Street signs

Family Jewelry or Trinkets

Do you notice anything in the photo that is a family treasure, such as a ring, necklace, or brooch? Perhaps this item is something that has been passed down through generations. This item might help you to identify one or more people in the photo.

Is there anyone in the photo that bears a resemblance to someone in your current family? Sometime various generations resemble each other in some manner such as with curly hair or freckles. This similarity might provide you with a clue to identify the names of the people in the photo.

Military uniforms

Military uniforms can provide clues regarding the era the photo was taken, the country where the person served and their military rank. Ribbons or badges may indicate societies or groups your ancestor belonged to, leading to records from that society or group. The website, WWII Impressions, can provide you with photos of World War II uniforms for all United States branches of the military. Items are also available for sale on this website.

Clothing Clues

The University of Vermont provides a valuable free online resource to help determine the century or decade when a photo was taken. The website provides insight for both clothing and hair styles from the 1850s through the 1950s.

Another free resource that might be helpful as you research old styles of clothing is Vintage Victorian.


The Eyeglasses Warehouse website provides clues about eyeglass styles through the years. This free website provides photos of vintage eyeglasses from the 18th and 19th century. This might be helpful if you find an old photo of a possible cousin or uncle wearing glasses and you need to determine a possible year or decade when the photo was taken.

Do You Need to Find Photos of Relatives?

If you happen to have missing clues about your ancestors or wonder if or where photos might be available, you might want to try your research on “Dead Fred”. Like the other research sites mentioned, this website allows researchers to search the photos on the database for free. What a researcher will discover are thousands of identified and mystery photos for people who are looking for long-lost family members. Anyone who finds a photo of a direct ancestor that is owned by the archive will receive the photo for free.

The next time that you happen upon an old family photo album look closely at the photos and determine the hidden story that the photo has to tell you.

Want to find other expert researchers just like Marge for your research questions? Post a request to our community today!

Photo at top: Two mothers-in-law meet for the first time in Southern California in 1948. On the left is Maria Colombo from Sicily, Italy and on the right is Sophia Durzo from Pennsylvania. This photo is the first and only time that the two ladies would meet. The occasion was the birth of blog writer Marge Bitetti.


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