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  • Paige Nelson

What Use are Family Photos When Researching The Family Tree?

Using family photos can be very beneficial when researching your family tree as they can give you clues as to where that ancestor was working, living, or visiting. They can also show you who they were with whether it be other family members or friends. Photographs can also trigger a memory with other family members, they may be able to tell you the story behind that photo. Do keep in mind that not every person in a photograph is a family member, your ancestors had friends, co workers, teachers and maybe even servants.


If a family member sends you a collection of photographs it may help to sort them into groups of relatives that you do know and recognize and the ones that you do not. Then break them into groups of time period, location or the same face appearing in pictures. Wedding photos can be wonderful for family research as many relatives from both the Bride's family and the Groom's turned up to celebrate.

Looking at the photos may even reveal who shared your bone structure, your eyes, where you get the curly dark hair or other physical attributes. If photographs appear to be from an overseas vacation, you can use that information to find passenger lists which give the names of those who are travelling together as well as the dates of travel. To narrow down your search range look at the photograph carefully. To ascertain a time period look at the clothing, it may pinpoint an era as fashion trends come and go. Vehicles or stores in the background can also allude to clues. Yet there are times when you will find that the photograph itself holds some answers, like this little gem.



In my own family history search I had been given boxes upon boxes of photographs to sort that were lose as they had been taken out of the albums. In this first photograph two people are pictured in the doorway of a Shop. It was a tobacconist and confectioners. This picture caught my mother’s attention, as she believed she recognized the woman standing in the back closest to the door. It was her grandmother's aunt Flo, she was almost certain.


The name of the store confirmed it "F. Leyland". (Leyland was my great grandmother's maiden name) but Flo had married, so this possibly dated before that. I got out the magnifying glass and looked carefully. In the windows of the shop you can see decorations and Union Jack Flags that indicated a very patriotic British celebration. The clothing and hairstyles looked 1940's to 1950's. I checked for social events in that time frame and found VE Day 8 May 1945 marking the end of WW2 and the coronation of Elizabeth II took place on 2 June 1953 at Westminster Abbey, London. It was still an 8 year window, so I looked for more clues. The only additional thing I could determine was that it was not winter as neither of the ladies were wearing coats, boots or gloves. Scanning the picture to computer enabled me to zoom in on the sign in the window. It wasn't words there, but a carriage and horses- similar to that used in the Coronation procession. Result is estimated photo date June 1953.


I had many questions such as why was she photographed in front of the shop? What was the significance? What town was she in? Who was that with her? Were there any other photos from that day at the shop?


I found another shop picture but it was not a Tobacconist & Confectioners as the stock on the shelves is not either of those things. However, it showed the same woman standing behind the counter that my mother insisted was "Flo". Again, I had to question why was she behind the counter? Did she work there? If she did, for how long? Did she own the shop?


I had to take a closer look at the photograph to see if I could find any other clues. When I looked at the back of the photograph, I noticed something. There was scrap book paper still glued to it, but at the bottom it looked like a pen stroke. I carefully removed a little of the black coating. It looked like there really was writing underneath it. I knew it could be another clue as to why she was there, so I had to very carefully remove the adhesive and paper, as not to ruin the writing or the picture.


The first result was excellent. Thanks to Aunt Flo's clear handwriting I was able to find out that she had given this picture to my great grandparents "Jo and Lew." Flo tells them that this is her shop. She confirms who the other female with her is. Ann Jenkins, daughter of Syd Jenkins, Coalman. (Thanks Aunt Flo!) Using additional treatment to the adhesive at a later point could also uncover a date or the photographers details. As Flo lived most of her life, and died in Newport, South Wales we lean towards this as a location.


I found that looking at photos is a bigger help than I had originally thought. The clues are there, you just have to look and look again, and again. Even after asking relatives to look at pictures once you should always go back to show them again when you have more clues or information.


Warning: For every piece of new information you find, you will have new questions and uncover more clues. It can become addictive!




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