Pictures were one of the big reasons I became interested in family history. The above photo especially played a big role in my curiosity about the people in our family whom I knew, but especially those who I didn’t. Somehow seeing the faces of long-parted ancestors gave them unique personalities and made them more “real” to me.
My grandparents had a large photo collection which was, in part, kept in an old suitcase under a guest room bed. One of my favorite activities when I was visiting was to pull out that suitcase and rifle through the contents. Most of the pictures stored there were of myself, my sister and my 6 cousins, documentation of my grandparents’ life as grandparents. My grandmother must have sensed a deeper interest, and that was when she pulled out the rarer family treasures, like the photo above. It shows my grandfather’s 3 sisters, and was probably taken around 1903. I remember being very intrigued with the girls’ clothing, jewelry and hairstyles, like any girl would be, but also the fact that I had actually known two of these ladies. The difference between them as little girls and as the older women I was familiar with left a deep impression on me.
Unfortunately I did not become very involved with family history in time to ask questions of my Aunt Lula, my aunt Emma, or even my grandfather. All I knew came from some of the random things I could remember them saying, or my grandmother’s memories. Then, of course, there were the photographs. My grandfather’s family seemed to have been very fond of photography. The photo collection my grandparents inherited had been gathered from several different sources- my great grandmother, 2 of my great aunts, and also my grandparents themselves.
So the photos were left to speak for themselves. They can reveal information from obvious sources- what’s written on the back, what type of material they are printed on, the things we have been told about them, or information stamped on them from developing labs or photo studios. But then there are things that can be inferred by more detailed observation of the image itself.
I did know some facts about the photo, such as the girls’ names, approximate ages, and birth order. Florence in the center was the oldest, Lula on the left was the middle, and Emma on the right the youngest. All were older than my grandfather, who was born in 1909. What else could be inferred just from looking at the photo? All three girls were neatly dressed, their hair tied back in similar pony tails. They are wearing jewelry- bracelets, rings and necklaces. Their dresses are all of a shorter length characteristic of children’s wear, and they appear to be made of heavier material with long sleeves, so the season must have been either fall, winter or early spring. Their pose indicates a close family bond- Florence and Emma are seated on a brocade stool, Florence has her arm around Emma. Lula stands next to them, her hand on Florence’s skirt.
This type of “reading between the lines” to look at the photographic evidence in a new way is known as “Forensic Genealogy”. It’s defined as a creative way of analyzing the data in front of us- using traditional genealogy records as well as photographs to tell the story of our ancestors. The book “Forensic Genealogy” by Colleen Fitzpatrick is considered the foremost reference on the subject. You can check it out here: http://www.forensicgenealogy.info/
In future blog posts, I’ll be sharing some of my favorite photos that have served as inspiration for my genealogy research.