Unlocking the Mysteries of Old Photos: Tips from The Photo Detective®

Family History
19 June 2020
by Maureen Taylor

Ancestry® connected with Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective®—an internationally recognized expert on historic photograph identification, preservation, and family history research. Here are a few key tips from Maureen to solve the mysteries in your old photos.

Family photos provide such a rich connection to our past. But often by the time they get passed down, a lot of the details are lost.

Fortunately there are a number of ways to puzzle out the clues in  your old family photos.

Traditional Costumes

A photo of someone in traditional dress contains more leads than you might think. It can give very specific clues, like telling you exactly where your ancestor lived and their marital status.

Take the woman below’s attire for instance. She’s a resident of Hindeloopen, a seaside community in northern Holland.

Woman in traditional Dutch clothing.
This woman’s hat indicates marital status. [courtesy of Maureen Taylor]

Traditional Dutch women’s nineteenth and early twentieth century attire—as showcased in this souvenir photo collectible by tourists—featured colorful chintz fabrics. This particular headwear signifies she’s married.


If you don’t know where a photo was taken, turning to people online can be a good idea.

A few years ago, I found a small collection of images of people standing on a hill overlooking a river. An outing captured with someone’s snapshot camera. It didn’t look familiar.


Couple posing on mountaintop overlooking a river valley.
Where were these two people standing? [courtesy of Maureen Taylor]

To help solve the mystery, Ancestry® shared the photo with their community. The answer came back in less than 24 hours!

A woman in the UK recognized the spot: Lookout Mountain, Tennessee.

Sure, there are other rivers in the world that feature a bend. But she shared proof—a 360 degree view, leaving no doubt that it was the location in Tennessee. Modern day images of the area confirmed it.


Uniforms can be both a great clue and a potential source of confusion.

Why? There were no standardized military uniforms until the twentieth century. And uniforms weren’t only for the military.

Men in uniform could also be members of a fraternal group or of an occupation that wore standardized dress.

Crowd of onlookers for Odd Fellows parade.
This parade in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1890 is not military. [via Library of Congress]
The group of men in the photo above, for example, paraded in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1890. They wore coats that mimicked those worn by military companies, but they weren’t. All were members of an International Order of Odd Fellows membership.If you’ve got a uniform mystery, one of the best ways to sort it out is to make a timeline of the man in uniform’s life around the time of the photo.

Facial Hair

Whiskers are popular again. It’s a fashion double-take.

Hairstyles, beards, and clothing details have a tendency to come back if you wait long enough. But what’s in a hairy face? Well…plenty.

The style of facial hair can place someone in the 1860s or in the 1880s. It can allude to their religion or even their politics.

Illustration chart of different facial hair styles.
This parade in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1890 is not military. [via Library of Congress]
One key to figuring out what era a photo is from based on facial hair is taking into account their age and what you know about your family.Men tended to maintain the beards and mustaches of their youth. But also keep in mind, was your ancestor a fashion forward type of person, or one that held on to their favorite mustache? Facial hair might provide clues to when they lived.

Celebrity-Inspired Fashion

Our ancestors loved celebrities as much as we do right down to adopting their way of dressing. A wisp of a collar on a woman’s outfit can pinpoint a photo date.

The photo of the woman below’s small collar—known as the Jenny Lind collar—became popular in the early 1850s because it was worn by an attractive young Swedish singer, Jenny Lind, who traveled the country with P.T. Barnum.

Woman wearing black dress with white, scalloped collar.
A woman with a Jenny Lind collar. [courtesy of Maureen Taylor]
Look at the photos of your younger years and you might spot the Farrah Fawcett haircut or the Beatles mop top. Head-to-toe fashion has a tendency to reappear. In the 1980s, Madonna wore heavy looking jewelry ala the look of the 1870s. Let’s leave the bustle to the 1870s and 1880s though.


What Clues Do Your Family Photos Hold?

Whether you have family photos in a photo box, photos you’ve uploaded to Ancestry—or photos you find that people in your Ancestry family tree have uploaded—our photographs talk to us if we pay attention.

Their details tell us about our ancestors. It could be a story of where they lived, who they married (or didn’t), or their hobbies. That photo story might just hold the key to answer the questions you have about those folks.

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About the author: Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective®, is an internationally recognized expert on historic photograph identification, photo preservation, and family history research. The author of several books, hundreds of articles, and a guest on TV shows such as The View and The Today Show, Maureen helps individuals rediscover their family history one picture at a time.