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How to Identify People and Places in Old Photos Using the Internet

Beth uses the internet to work from home. Modern technology has made it easy and fun.

Old photos: A sepia (brown-colored) photograph of unknown origin that I found in a yard sale.

Old photos: A sepia (brown-colored) photograph of unknown origin that I found in a yard sale.

Vintage Photos Are Visual History

I love preowned and second-hand goods and I often go to thrift stores and yard sales. Recently, I found some old sepia photographs lying loose inside an antique book I purchased at a yard sale. Their owner may have put them inside the heavy volume to keep them flat and then forgotten all about them.

Whatever their story, there is no one I can ask. The owner of the book and the creator of the photos have long since passed away. The pictures shown above and below are just a couple of those I found that day. They piqued my interest and I wanted to find out more about them.

The photos show a group of young men engaged in some kind of physical exercise. They capture a snapshot in time. I decided to use the internet to help me with my search into history. Here are my six pro tips to help you identify your vintage photos.

Are these the same group of athletic young men as in the other photo?

Are these the same group of athletic young men as in the other photo?

1. Where to Start Researching and Identifying Your Old Photos

There are many specialist sites online that give detailed information about early photographic methods. One of the more useful is and there are many other genealogy websites that can help you in your search. Many people use old photos to help research their family tree.

I found Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries to be a useful reference book. It contains a summary of changes in clothing and hairstyles that can provide valuable clues to the dates your photographs were taken.

The Roger Vaughan Picture Library website is also a good resource as it has uploaded numerous dated photos that can be used to benchmark your own.

2. Use Search Engines to Help You Identify Photographs

The first step to finding some basic information for my detective work was to use search engines on the internet. I typed the phrase “identify old photos” into Google and then into Bing. The results were similar but not identical.

This is because search engines use different algorithms to produce their results. For this reason, it's always a good idea to use more than one search engine. When you review the search results, remember they're influenced by cookies that have been placed onto your computer by your previous internet use.

I recommend you clear (delete) the cookies before you start your research. This should bring up a more objective results list. My initial search inquiry suggested I take the following steps to learn more about my photos:

  1. Identify the type of photograph (e.g. daguerreotype or tintype).
  2. Try to find the photographer’s mark or name.
  3. Discover the location or setting of the picture.
  4. Look for period detail such as hairstyle or clothing.
  5. Be a detective and use clues such as where you found the photo and any family connections to help identify the occasion.

3. Identify the Type of Photograph and Who Took the Photo

There are no identifying marks or names on the back of my photos. However, using the guidelines above, I narrowed the years down to their being made between 1880 and 1900. The sepia coloring, the type of paper, and paper size all point to the prints having been produced in the late Victorian period.

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It can be frustrating but dating old photos is not a precise art. At best, pinpointing the relevant year can only ever be an educated guess.

King’s College lawn tennis team, Cambridge University 1897.

King’s College lawn tennis team, Cambridge University 1897.

4. Where Was the Picture Taken?

If, like me, you don't know where your picture was taken, you need to become a detective. I turned to YouTube for help and found the interesting video above. In it, the narrator describes how to use the Image Search function on Chrome to find matching or similar photographs on the internet.

I uploaded a PDF of one of my sepia Victorian photos and the Chrome image search produced lots of images that were similar in layout to my pictures. I was surprised by how good the results were. There were several photographs of groups of young men in similar clothing. One was dated 1882 and showed a British military battalion. Another group showed some hospital orderlies in India dated 1913. I also found one of Cambridge University’s cricket team, dated 1897, which is shown above.

5. Wikimedia Is Good for Finding Photos Too

The background setting of the Cambridge cricket team set me thinking. It was possible that my photos were also located in one of the UK’s Universities. In the old Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the enclosed grassy areas are called quads or quadrangles.

So, I did a Wikimedia image search on Oxford University colleges. I then refined that term to search Oxford University quads. The result was better than I could have hoped for. The buildings at Worcester College (see below) are those in my sepia photos. I had a lucky break because since publishing this article online, I was contacted by someone who recognized the location and confirmed my guess.

Eastern and southern sides of main quad, Worcester College, Oxford, England, UK.

Eastern and southern sides of main quad, Worcester College, Oxford, England, UK.

Old cottages, south side of main quad, Worcester College, Oxford University, UK.

Old cottages, south side of main quad, Worcester College, Oxford University, UK.

6. Hairstyle and Clothing Can Indicate Period

The people in a picture can give useful clues about the period and country where a photo was taken. However, not everyone dresses in the height of fashion. In many communities, clothing was passed down from sibling to sibling until it was threadbare. Hairstyles and facial hair may be a better indicator of the year as these cost little to change and so are not constrained by poverty.

The photo of the group of men that I was researching shows them in athletic garb. The style is consistent with the late 1890s. A number of them are sporting mustaches, but none of them have beards. This fashion can also be seen in the Cambridge Photo of 1897. I am therefore of the opinion that my pictures are of a similar date.

Successful Detective Work

I had great fun researching my old photos on the internet. I was surprised how much of the jigsaw I was able to piece together in just a few hours. I can understand why people find genealogy and family history so fascinating. The research bug has bitten me. I will have to find some more old photos or postcards to research.

How to Find Out Who's in a Photo

Here are some useful tips from the UK National Archive Service on how to identify old family photographs:

  • Check the photograph for any written marks which might point towards its age. Does the photographer’s studio name appear on either side of the photograph? If so, you may be able to date it to the period when the photographer was active.
  • Look out for handwritten notes on the back of the photograph such as names, events or locations. Some detective work might be required, but even a couple of words such as ‘Ann’s birthday’ or ‘Village fair’ can be helpful.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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