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How to Identify Old Photos Using the Internet

Updated on July 1, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

I love searching for bargains in yard sales, thrift stores and charity shops. As fast as I donate items, I acquire new ones.

Sepia (Brown-Colored) Photograph of Unknown Origin

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Old Photographs Are a Gateway to 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 a 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.

Are These the Same Group of Athletic Young Men?

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Internet Resources For Identifying Historic Photo ID

Website
Useful For
Search Engines e.g. Google, Bing
Type in a question and the algorithm usually produces relevant answers.
Image Search e.g. Chrome
Can help identify period and location.
Wikimedia
Helps you visualise a specific place.
Ancestry.com
Gives features and dates of different types of photography.
Roger Vaughan Picture Library
Contains hundreds of dated Victorian and Edwardian postcards for clothing and hair fashions.

Using Search Engines to Help Your Quest

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 is always a good idea to use more than one search engine.

When you review the search results, remember they are 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 enquiry 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.

How to Date Old Photographs

How good a detective are you?

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Identify the Type of Photograph and Who Took the Photo

There are many specialist sites online that give detailed information about early photographic methods. One of the more useful is Ancestry.com 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. The Roger Vaughan Picture Library website is also a good resource as it has uploaded numerous dated photographs that can be used to benchmark your own.

There are no identifying marks or names on the back of my photos. However, using the guidelines found on the websites 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. 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.

How to Use Google Chrome Photo Identification

Where was the Photo Taken?

If, like me, you do not 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 how good the results were. There were several photographs of groups of young men in comparable attire. 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 below.

King’s College Lawn Tennis Team, Cambridge University 1897

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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 Cambridge University colleges. I then refined that term to search Cambridge University quads. The result was better than I could have hoped for. The buildings at Westcott College (see below) are almost identical to those in my sepia photos. I probably need to do a bit more research on this but I think I am at the right location.

The Quad at Westcott College, Cambridge UK

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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 1890’s. A number of them are sporting moustaches, 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. Having found such a similar photo on the web from the archives at Cambridge University I intend to continue my search there. I will email the images first to see if the archivist can shed some light on them. Then perhaps I can visit some of the old University quadrangles in Cambridge to see if I can make a precise identification of the location of the photographs.

I can understand why people find genealogy and family history so fascinating. The research bug has bitten me. I am going to have to find some more old photos or postcards to research.

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