Don’t Play “Who’s-Who” With Vintage and Antique Photographs

I have to say, I really love everything about my job. Seriously.

Things like sourcing vintage, the thrill of the hunt, the photography, writing creative descriptions, and the research – I love it all!

I spent today researching a bunch of antique photographs that I purchased at an estate sale. I learned a lot about this family, and even found the cemeteries they are buried in.

My favorite photo from this most recent collection is of three children – Mary, Frank and Harry…

I look at their faces in the photo and I try to imagine what they were thinking when the photo was taken.

Mary, Frank, and Harry’s father was Jeremiah S. Custard. Jeremiah was a Methodist Clergyman. You can read more about him at Syracuse University.

Among the collection of photographs from this estate, was a photo of Mary when she was a toddler…

and another photo of her as an adult woman…

When I look at her photos, I imagine she had real spunk in her personality!

You may be curious just HOW I research these old photographs – let me share some tips with you!

How I Start My Research of Old Photographs

STEP #1 – When I find boxes of vintage and antique photographs and cabinet cards, the first thing I do is sort them by photographer when possible, then by city of the photo studio. I then look through all the photographs to find the ones that have names written on them.

I always appreciate when a family member has written the names of the people in the photo on the back of the photograph. This not only helps all future generations to know who the people in the photos were, but it gives me a starting point to research who these people were.

Oftentimes one or more photos will only have a first name written on them, or something like “Aunt Mary”. But when you have photographs from the same collection, you can often figure out the last names and relationships of the people in the photos, even when provided with just a first name.

STEP #2 – Once I have one or more names to start with, I immediately go to the website While I realize most people will go to a genealogy site first, I find that I can usually find a lot more information about a person and their families by seeing their headstones. I typically do a search for the name and the city that was on the cabinet card. I realize that people move to (and die in) cities beyond what was on the cabinet card, but I find that in the 1800s and early 1900s, people generally stayed in the same area. With a name and a location, I can usually narrow down all the headstones to the most likely ones for the people I am researching.

Here is a link to the headstone of Mary Alice. From Mary’s headstone, I was able to find that she was married to Robert G. Evans, and I discovered who her parents were.

Once I find a headstone, I then research the additional family members that are mentioned on the headstones. This usually provides a good idea of relationships and other family members, and I can start putting together my own “family tree” for my research.

STEP #3 – After searching for headstones, I then do a general search for the names I have found. For example, when I discovered Mary’s father was Jeremiah S. Custard, I did a search for his name (using quote marks around his full name), as well as the city, and discovered more information about him through documents held at Syracuse University. From the information I discovered there, I found Mary’s mother’s maiden name – Shiffer. There were several photos in this collection with the name Shiffer on them, so I knew they were relatives and it was just a little bit more research before I discovered their relationships.

STEP #4 – In many cases, unfortunately, there are no names written on the photographs. Occasionally you can date the photographs and see family resemblances by grouping the photographs together by photo studio and location, and from there, you can sometimes make a best guest as to who the people in the photos are.

A tool I use when there are no names on the photographs is a Google search for similar images. To do this, I right-click the photograph I have (usually listed on my website) and then choose “Search Google for Image”. You would be surprised how many times I can find photos that match! The photos I find are usually posted at various genealogy websites, and from there I can then identify the people in the photos that I have.

INTERESTING NOTE: Imagine the surprise of the person who determined the identity of this flea market find photograph. The photo turned out to be William H. Bonnie (aka “Billy the Kid”). That photo may be worth millions now that the men in the picture have been identified! I wish it would have been me who found that photo! It just goes to show you that in some cases, the nameless faces in old photographs may one day be famous – or infamous, as was the case with this flea market find.

Don’t Play Who’s-Who! Write Those Names Down!

Since I was a young kid, photography has been one of my favorite hobbies. I have taken hundreds of thousands of photos over my lifetime. And even with the digital age of photos, I still like to have my photos printed, and I always write on the backs of each print – my attempt to preserve faces and places for all of time.

Having the names of the people photographed written on the photos gives the people in the photos an identity, and solidifies that they were real people.  I feel so sad when I find a bunch of photos that have no names on them. These photos were of people who mattered. They had lives that meant something to someone. Without names written on the photos, no one in future generations knows who they are – and that is a travesty.

I hope that you print your photos and I hope that you write the names and dates of the people in the photos right on the backs of the prints! By doing this, you are ensuring that no one will forget who these people were.

If you click the photos in this article, you will be able to read more information about each person through the research I’ve done. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I have!


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