Sunday, 3 November 2013

Book of Mysteries

It was a special moment when deep in the (previously mentioned!) box-in-the-attic, we found a large photograph album.

Better still, the photographs were named and dated, even with the birth date of the sitter recorded on the back. Hardly able to believe our luck we scoured the photos, matching them up with the information we had from gleaned from the censuses. The opening page showed photographs of four adults, taken in 1875.

First the grandparents...

Richard Mott Viner and Catherine Banner Viner (nee Evans)

Then the parents...

Walter Banner Viner and Mary Ann Viner (nee Pagdin)

And over the page, the girls...

Catherine Louisa born 1864, Lilian Mary born 1867, Florence Amy born 1871 and... er.. who's this? According to the census records, the Viners only had 3 daughters. Perhaps she was a cousin who came along to the exciting occasion of a visit to the photographer. A mystery yet to be solved...

Sadly, having been so lucky with names and dates on the first two pages, the remainder of the album mirrored the common frustration of so many family historians. A tantalising collection of photographs - but no names and no dates!

A Brief history of Family Photographs

It was in the 1830s that a way to combine chemistry and optics resulted in image reproduction.

In France, Louis Daguerre created the first permanent photographic image in 1837, known as the Daguerreotype. These first entered the British portrait market in 1841. Images were made directly on to silvered copper plate. As one-off pictures, they were expensive to produce - around £1 in the 1840s, the equivalent of a week's wages for a general worker.

The Ambrotype came into usage in 1851 - a glass plate from which prints could be made.

But it was the invention of the Cartes de Visite by Andre Disden in 1854 when photography really took off, albeit after a slow start. Diseri created a new type of portrait photography by using several small negatives on one large photographic plate. The resulting picture cards, of which most family historians are familiar, became common after 1861 and photographic studios opened up all over London and the provinces. In our album alone, I counted 18 different photographers' names.

Dating your photographs

There are several websites which will help you date your mystery photos.

Roger Vaughn's site gives examples of photographs from different decades to compare with your own images.

The Family Search  website gives technical tips for dating your photographs.

Jayne Shrimpton is an internationally recognised 'photo detective' whose stand at the annual Who Do You Think You Are event is always popular. Her excellent book is a comprehensive guide to with family pictures of all kinds. You can find more about her book and how to buy a copy on the Society of Genealogist's website here.

There are also useful photography and genealogy links on Jayne's webpages, including photograph restoration and repair services.

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