Family Photo Reunion
A passion for genealogy led to one woman’s quest to help old family photos find their way home.
It pains me to see old family photos for sale in antique stores and thrift shops. I wonder how a portrait of great-great grandfather Hiram could end up with a price sticker on it when, surely, there is some family member, somewhere, who would cherish the image. After all, every family seems to have at least one genealogist!
Having been a genealogist myself for the past 35 years, I know what a coup it is to find a photograph of a previously unseen ancestor from the 1860s. It’s exciting—almost as good as winning the lottery. It’s also very rare. As a first generation Canadian, I don’t have deep Canadian roots so it’s unlikely I will wander into an antique shop and find a photo of my great-great grandfather sitting atop a Rogers Golden Syrup tin from the 1930s. Very little was brought over from the homeland to Canada by my parents, so I’ll probably never experience that moment, still, I can hope. In the meantime, I decided to do my best to reunite some of these abandoned images with their families, where I could.
In 1998, I bought my first set of “identified” portrait photographs at an antique shop. The plan was to research the names of the individuals written on the photo and locate a family member who wanted it. To get a clear idea of who the subject was, I’d have to use all of the clues the photograph presented. It’s most helpful when someone has written the identity of the people in the photograph on the back, but it’s not always there, and when it is, it’s often the bare minimum of information. The photographer’s imprint or stamp, a negative number, the type of dress or hairstyle of the sitter, and the style of the photograph itself all work together to help narrow down the date of a photograph and can help identify individuals as well.
I’ve been lucky with a few images that only had the photographer’s name and a negative number on them. Sometimes, that negative number can be useful. If the photographer is a prominent one, their works might be archived in a museum collection, and that number might allow you to find out the name of the sitter, as was the case with a couple of my finds. But again, this is rare. Most unidentified photos will stay unidentified forever more. So, if you have any old photos in your family archive, please label them now.
For a genealogist, one of the added benefits of trying to learn more about the people in old photographs is learning about genealogical resources in areas where you wouldn’t normally re-
search. Most of my family roots extend to Scandinavia and Germany. When I had an opportunity to look into the lives of Lieutenant Colonel Mathew Brown Harrison (born 1837) from Maccan, N.S., or David and Cornelia Crammond ( pre- 1865 photo) from Frontenac County, Ont., I enjoyed learning how to research Canadian records. My own family history research involves using overseas records. Researching individuals in these found photographs provided me with the opportunity to learn more about Canadian genealogy and history. I managed to reunite those first photographs with their descendants, so I sought out and purchased more photos, and more after that.
In 2011, I started a Family Photo Reunion blog to share these found images along with my research. Today I’ve reunited various families with more than 300 pre- 1927 photographs, bibles and other genealogical documents.
One of my favourite reunions occurred when trying to learn the identity of an early 20th century family featured on a real photo postcard. A man, a woman holding an infant, and a little girl were captured by the photographer standing on the front porch of their new-ish-looking home. The postcard photograph was taken by the Lyall Photo Co., Ltd. in Winnipeg. In addition to the photographer’s information on the reverse of the card, the card was also addressed to “Mrs. Edwards, 35 Queen Street, Stratford, New Town, Essex, England.” I didn’t know if Mrs. Edwards was a relative, friend or acquaintance, as there wasn’t a message on the postcard. Instead of trying to figure out who Mrs. Edwards was, I decided to try another approach. Looking more closely at the photograph, I noticed a house number on the front porch: 421. Based on the clothing styles, I guessed that the picture was taken sometime between 1910 and 1915. I headed to the 1916 Census of the Prairie Provinces to see if I could find any Edwards residing in Winnipeg with a house number 421. I found one family:
George Thomas Edwards, born 1883, England, to Canada in 1903; Sarah Edwards, born 1885, England, to Canada in 1908; Grace, daughter, age six; Clarence, son, age four; Alfred, son, age three. I used Google Maps to see if the house was still standing—there it was, renovated, but clearly the same house in the photograph. After I posted the story on my blog, the photograph was reunited with the grandson of one of the children on the porch.
Now when I see a wayward photograph in an antique store or thrift shop, I’m not nearly as sad about it. It’s comforting to know there is a chance it may still find its way back home. ■