Have you become the keeper of the past for your family? Are you the one who has inherited boxes of unidentified photos that appear to be from the 19th century? Don’t throw in the towel and toss them away. All is not lost. You can do a bit of detective work and discover who they are.

The first step is to narrow the time period from when the picture was taken. This can be accomplished by recognizing whether it is a Daguerreotype, Ambrotype, Tintype or a Cabinet Card.


Daguerreotype images were introduced in 1839 as the first publicly available photographic process. They are very delicate and were always kept in a protective, lined, leather case. They are also highly reflective, requiring you to tilt them at a 45-degree angle in order to view the image, otherwise you see only a reflection of yourself.

In 1854, Ambrotypes were patented and being less expensive they quickly became the popular choice. Printed on glass and backed with a dark material, if the backing deteriorates, you can often see through the glass which gives the image a ghostly appearance.

Tintypes came along two years later in 1856 and as the name suggests, were printed on metal and are attracted to a magnet. While prevalent through the 1870s, tintypes are still used today.

Cabinet cards were photos mounted on stiff pieces of cardboard and were popular from the 1880s into the 1900s. The front of the card is usually printed with the photographer’s details, and this can be very helpful as your ancestors normally would not have traveled far to have their photos taken. If the studio was in North Dakota and you only have one branch of your family from there, it’s a good bet you should focus on that family.  

To further aid in determining the year your photograph was taken, be attentive to clothing and hairstyles. The website fashion-era.com is quite detailed and you may be able to pinpoint within five years. Also, look closely at the background of your photograph. Is there a house or family heirloom that is familiar, or an automobile that can help date the timing of the photo?

Once you feel some confidence about the time and place of the photo, try to match these clues with what you already know about your family history to identify who is in the photo. If you have other photos that have been labeled, compare them to determine if there are any similarities.

I have been working for the past few years on my own stacks of photographs received from my grandmother and cousins. Though most are unidentified, some progress has been made in discovering who these people were. In the two samples shared here, I knew that the wedding portrait is of my great-grandparents, Emanuel and Onnie Huseby Ruzicka, and that Onnie is seated in the front right of the second photo. But who are the other five people in that photo? Onnie had two older brothers and two older step-sisters, and I’ve been able to determine that the other women are these step-sisters. In keeping with this being a family photo, it is probable that the two men standing are her brothers. Then who is the man leaning behind Onnie? I recently concluded that he may well be my great-grandfather, Emanuel, and that this photo was taken at some point before the wedding portrait. It’s those deep-set eyes and the mustache that led me and knowing that there was no other male in the family that it could be. I will have to ask my cousins what they think.

And you do the same. Ask your cousins and other relatives if they have any clues or information to share. You may be pleasantly surprised by what, and who, they know.

Lisa Lombardi O’Reilly has lived in Carpinteria since 1997 and is a personal and family historian specializing in making heirloom books out of life stories. She is a member of the Association of Personal Historians, the National Genealogical Society and the Association for Professional Genealogists. For more information, visit yourstorieswritten.com and facebook.com/lisa.lombardioreilly; send an email to lloreillybooks@aol.com; or call Lisa at (805) 680-7375.

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