Old family photos can provide treasured glimpses into the lives of relatives who lived decades ago. However, if the images aren’t labeled, part the photo’s story may be lost.
To help address this issue, local history librarian Jason Cornelius taught a class on identifying old photos at the Logan Library on Wednesday as part of the library’s genealogy club.
Cornelius focused his material Wednesday night on identifying photos from the 1800s.
“It seems like that is where people’s memories die,” Cornelius said.
“A lot of 20th-century photos, there may be somebody still alive who can give you some clues, (but with) 19th-century photos, everybody’s gone.”
The first tool Cornelius recommended was looking at what method was used to take the photo.
Different methods were used during different times and can be used to identify a window of years the photo may have been taken during.
For example, tintype photos were taken from 1856 to about 1900. These photos are dark on the back because they were taken on a tin plate.
Cornelius said if someone does not have tintypes in their possession, they will likely locate some by talking to family members.
“A lot of the Mormon pioneers had photos done on tintypes,” Cornelius said.
When scanned, Cornelius said, a lot of depth can be found in tintypes. However, he also said extra caution needs to be taken not to damage these photos.
“You can easily scratch this right off the metal plate,” Cornelius said. “That is just a little bit of a preservation concern with photos like this.”
Other elements in the photos, like clothing, hairstyles and props can further help date an image.
“Don’t just use one type of identification,” Cornelius said.
When a potential timeframe for an image is identified, more personal clues like ages of ancestors and who in the family had possession of the images may help the people in the photo be identified.
Preservation was also addressed. Cornelius said light, temperature, pests and water are the four main risks to photos. One of the ways he said experts recommended avoiding these was storing images in a container.
Putting pieces of acid-free paper between the photos in the container can also help protect them.
“The first thing I need to do is check on what I have in boxes and make sure they are doing well and secure,” said Judith Newton, one of the people who attended Wednesday’s class.
Cornelius said digitizing photos and distributing them is one of the best ways to ensure preservation.
“The more it gets opened,” Cornelius said, “the better a file maintains itself. What is death to a digital file is leaving it there and just having it stay there.”
Newton said it is important to include stories and details with the photos when they are stored because they provide significance to the images.
“We find old pictures,” Newton said, “and we think ‘Why didn’t they write on them?’ But you know what? I’m not writing on mine either. A lot of us are guilty of that.”
The genealogy club at the Logan Library began last summer. The club meets on the first Wednesday of the month at 5:30 p.m. to discuss topics related to family history such as reading census records, helpful websites and finding old photos.