• Family Heirlooms: 19th Century Photographs

    Often making a journey across time and continents, family heirlooms are a solid physical connection to a very personal ancestral past that tend to hold memories, which resonate deep within us.

    Those who have held their great-grandmothers wedding dress or read the letters written home from a relative who served in a war understands the deep link felt across the generations. One truth shared by all family treasures is that… it is the stories that accompany them that give them the greatest meaning and tie us to our generations past.


    Sadly, sometimes the objects remain while the stories are lost. Genealogically this can be a great opportunity to discover a new family history story or ancestor. If you have, an heirloom that has become a bit of a mystery an investigation may be in order.  The type of investigation you conduct will likely depend on the object you are investigating. While family heirlooms are made up of every object imaginable, from jewelry to family bibles. Often the photographs pose the most problems…particularly very early ones.

    19th Century Photographs

    The first step in solving the puzzle of a mysterious early period photograph is deciding what type of photo you have. A difficult task with these three photo types of the 19th century.


    A good way to decide if it is a Daguerreotype is to hold a piece of paper over the surface and see if the image is reflected in reverse. Additionally, Daguerreotypes are often tarnished around the edges of the picture. If it is a Daguerreotype is will date from 1839-1860.


    Ambrotypes are often hand tinted. To figure out if what you have is an Ambrotype carefully remove it from the case and hold it up to the light. Ambrotypes were printed on glass so you should be able to see through it. Another clue is to look for any cracks or peeling as another hallmark of the Ambrotype is the black paint used to process the picture. Ambrotypes date from 1854-1865.


    It can be hard to tell the difference between a Tintype and an Ambrotype.  The only way to be certain is to hold a magnet near it. Tintypes were made of a very thin iron and should be attracted to the magnet. Tintypes were common during the civil war and date from 1856-1920.After you have determined the type of photograph, you may need to track down its geography. A hint you may find helpful, is through the clothing worn by the people in your photograph. Clothing, accessories and hairstyles may be great hints for women, while uniforms can be a dead give away for men. All can help you to zero in on the country or origin. Once that is determined, the next step is to search for period photographers from that country. Several indexes by country list photographers so you should not have too much trouble once you know the photo type.

    Additionally, some early photographers may have developed an identifiable style that can be helpful in tracking them down. For example, there may be preferences in the manner which subjects are posed (seated or standing), or backgrounds and props used may offer some clues. This process can be very time consuming, as it is a matter of searching and comparing your photo to the ones found in your search. Even at that, be cautious about your conclusions.

    Solving the mystery of your family heirloom can be fun and rewarding. Better yet, it may help flesh out your family history, add new branches to your family tree and fill out another space on your family template. All good reasons to start your detective work A.S.A.P.

    If you have a mystery, post it in the Ask A Genealogist forum, or share with us how you solved a mystery on the Discovery Panel and tell us how you did it. Genealogy Beginner would love to hear about your family treasures and heirloom stories.

    Share Your Thoughts...
    Tell us what you're thinking...
    and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar for free here!
    Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately...