I like to try to picture my ancestors in the settings in which they lived, but in eras and families where pictures are scarce, it can be difficult to imagine. I love browsing through old photographs anywhere I can find them and even in cases where I canâ€™t find an image of my ancestorâ€™s exact house, itâ€™s fun to see images of the neighborhoods where they lived, the churches or schools they attended, and local street scenes.
Last week, Paulaâ€™s article about Google Street ViewÂ showed how to view of ancestral places of interest. This is great in cases where the houses or buildings still exist (and of course is limited to areas where the service is available), but for most of us, getting that glimpse of the houses and neighborhoods in which they lived will require a little more research.
Whenever I learn a place of origin for one of my ancestors in â€œthe old country,â€ the first thing I do is search for that town online. One of my ancestorâ€™s is from Balbriggan. A search brought up the Balbriggan & District Historical Society websiteÂ which has a few photographs as well as some historical information. When I switch over to Googleâ€™s image search, even more photographs come up. While most are contemporary, I can definitely get a feel for the area, and I ran across several images of historic monuments. A similar search for another small Irish town turned up an image of the church where my second great-grandmother was baptized.
Look for websites of local historical societies, libraries, tourism agencies, and chambers of commerce. These sites often have sections on local history that are populated with historical photographs. Search for nearby landmarks, street names and addresses, churches, schools, parks, and any other institution that your ancestor may have used.
The collections of images at Ancestry are growing by leaps and bounds. Since July 2006, Ancestry has experienced a surge in user-contributed content and more than 5.5 million photos have been uploaded. Many of the submitters have generously chosen to make their trees–and accompanying photographs–publicly available. Using the Photos and Maps tab on the homepage, enter a town name and state in the keyword field and see what kind of images come up. I was just browsing through with various keywords and ran across this street scene from Tingewick, Buckinghamshire, England.
If youâ€™re lucky, you might even find a distant cousin has posted a photograph of an ancestral home. Hereâ€™s a photograph of a house in Kokomo, Indiana, from around the turn of the century.
The Library of Congress collection has some really neat photographs too, and the Historical Postcard Collection has views from many locations. All are searchable through the same Photos and Maps tab on the homepage.
A search for â€œTillary Street,â€ where several of my Brooklyn ancestral families lived, turned up a photograph of Dr. James Tillaryâ€™s House at 15 Tillary Street. My third great-grandmother lived at 47 Tillary when she died.
A couple weeks ago, I answered a question on the blog about the New York City Tax Photographs that are available through the Municipal Archives.Â Around 1940, a photograph was taken of every house in the five boroughs. The photographs arenâ€™t cheap; an 8â€x10â€ will run $30 plus shipping and handling, but for those who donâ€™t have an image of an ancestorâ€™s home, it is well worth the cost, and you can even order online.
Library of Congress
The American Memory Project at the Library of Congress website has some great collections of photographs and thirteen of these collections are categorized as â€œCities and Towns.â€ Browsing through the collection of photographs from the Detroit Publishing Co., I clicked on the category â€œStreetsâ€ and found nearly 1,800 photographs of street scenes from across the United States and other countries as well.
Other Photographic Sites
There are scores of websites that host photographs of various locations. Randall’s Lost New York City Collection displays photographs of nineteenth-century buildings that were destroyed in the 1970s, along with the addresses.
The Cleveland Memory Project showcases the Special Collections of the Cleveland State University Library. Among the photographs on this site, I found a picture of the high school my father attended.
The Denver Public Libraryâ€™s Western History and Genealogy Department has digitized more than 120,000 images from Colorado and other western states. There are some interesting photos from mining towns, like this stereograph of â€œMen and boys in suits or vests, and hats, pos[ing] in the street in Creede (formerly Jimtown) in Mineral County, Colorado.â€ I also found a view looking down on the town of Leadville.
There are even photo archives geared specifically toward genealogists. Check out Dead FredÂ and if you donâ€™t find a photograph of your ancestor, try searching for his hometown.
In Your Mindâ€™s Eye
Some local histories will include illustrations, but even if they donâ€™t some are very detailed in their descriptions of the area they cover. The details they provide can help you to visualize the area and describe it in your family history.
You do have to remember copyright laws if youâ€™re considering using the photographs, but many of the collections Iâ€™ve mentioned do have pages with information on getting permission to use the images. Thereâ€™s typically a small fee associated with it and you will have to credit the source, but most of the sites Iâ€™ve seen make it easy to do.
Whatâ€™s Your Favorite Source?
Do you have a favorite source for historical images that I missed? Please share it with us in the Comments section here on the blog.
Juliana Smith has been an editor of Ancestry newsletters for more than nine years and is author of “The Ancestry Family Historian’s Address Book.” She has written for “Ancestry” Magazine and wrote the Computers and Technology chapter in “The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy,” rev. 3rd edition. Juliana can be reached by e- mail at Juliana@Ancestry.com, but she regrets that her schedule does not allow her to assist with personal research.