In the lull between Christmas dinner and the second helpings of dessert, after the dishes are done, while some are napping and some are playing, is the perfect time to meet your forgotten ancestors.
In fact, any time between the winter holidays, while older relatives and friends are still visiting, is a perfect time to get out that box of really old family photos and ask the oldest members of the group to help you identify them. We always think there will be time … someday … to find out who those strangers in the pictures are. Sadly, life doesn’t always work that way. My mother died when I was a child. My father went through several shoeboxes of old photos with me, on various visits; then he had a stroke that left him as bright as ever, but unable to speak. Fortunately, my mother’s older sister always came to stay for a few days at Christmas. When I showed her this photograph, my aunt cried, “Why, that’s my Grandma Lipp!” She seemed surprised that I hadn’t recognized a member of my own family — forgetting that her grandmother had died decades before I was born.
Once You Put a Name to the Face, It’s Easy to Find Out More
Today, I’m kicking myself for not asking for all my aunt’s memories about this young woman with the confident gaze. But, once I knew who she was, I was able to find her complete name and date of birth in the family Bible. With that information, it was possible to look up census records, which may tell you about parents and siblings in the same household, and a lot of other genealogical information. (You may not be interested in genealogy — I wasn’t — but one of your children or grandchildren might be, someday. )
One Name Leads to Another
Some time later, when I inherited my aunt’s boxes of photos, I found two cartes de visite – studio portraits of women in 1860s dresses. The face of the young woman looked familiar.
Yes, it is another picture of my great-grandmother. It said so on the back. The high, straight waistline of her dress was a fashion of about 1868-1870, when she would have been in her late teens. (As a costume historian, I like to know dates.)
I also found a labeled picture, early 20th century, of my once-beautiful great-grandmother Lipp as an old woman. By comparing the faces of this woman in youth and old age with the older woman in the Civil War era carte de visite — who was middle-aged when great grandma was a teenager, I’ve become reasonably certain that the unidentified woman is my great-great-grandmother.
You Get Stories Along with the Names of People in Old Pictures
My Aunt and Father loved seeing this picture of my mother, circa 1921 or 1922. My aunt laughed out loud when she saw it and said, “Dressed to kill!” so that’s what I wrote on the back of the picture, and it still makes me smile every time I see it. The photo prompted my aunt to tell me something I never knew: that my mother – here, obviously hoping to resemble a fashion plate – was an accomplished dressmaker. She worked as a secretary for a large company on Market Street in San Francisco in the 1920s, and, according to my aunt, “During her lunch breaks, your mother would go to the fabric stores and look at all the material. Then she’d buy her fabric on Friday, make the dress on Saturday, and wear it to a dance on Saturday night!” (I found this hard to believe, but I have since seen some 1920s patterns that would have been possible to cut and sew in a night and a day – especially if the dances started at 9 p.m.)
Use Acid-Free, Archival Ink to Write on the Backs of Photos
Sometimes the backs of photographs have a coating that makes it hard to write on them in pencil. Even when I use an acid-free, archival pen like the Micron .02, (available from office supply stores and art stores for less than $3) I try to write on the back in what would be the margin of the photo. Many old photos have writing right across the front — or back — in ink that was probably not archival. Sometimes the writing on the back “makes” the picture. Here is one that is tiny, ragged, creased, and a family treasure – because of the writing on the back.
I can’t help thinking that heading off into unknown country, among strangers, while carrying a rifle studded with real gold and silver coins was probably a bad idea – in spite of that determined-looking dog.)