Photos of Ancestors are valuable research tools

Last week I mentioned historical diaries for novel research. Today I want to talk about old photos as a research source. You can find them on-line by googling historical photos or something more specific like photos from the Civil War. These can be helpful.

But for me the best place to find historical pictures is in family photo albums. The ones my grandmother or great-aunts passed down. There you can see what people really wore on the prairie and in the fields and in the big city. For some of you that would be your great-great-greats.

My great-grandmother Ervin. Notice her elaborate collar.

When I do research for clothing for my historical novels, which take place in the mid-1800s I love to look at old photos. In case you weren’t aware photography was available then. There were photo studios in the larger cities and photographers who traveled from town to town capturing pictures. I’ll not go into detail about how photos were taken at the time. My post is about the use of said photos today.  Those who could afford the luxury would go to a photographer in their best attire to have a picture made.

A tintype of my Great Aunt Katie.

I love the photos taken by traveling photographers. They often capture the whole family, including their pets. Special items such as a gun or quilt might be held in their hands. Often the setting was in front of their house. Photographs like these give me an idea of architecture and other details.

Between my husband and I, we have many of these sorts of pictures from the early 1840s into the 20th Century. I love to look at their fashions. Simpler lines in dresses, men in suitcoats even when farming. Overalls were not always the preferred dress of farmers.

Schoolchildren’s clothes changed over the decades depending on whether the class photo was taken in front of a one-room schoolhouse or a town school.

My ancestors were farmers and coal miners in central Illinois. And my mother’s parents started their married life in Peoria Illinois and spent over 50 years in the same house.  My husband’s ancestors were also farmers who’d lived in the same area of Southern Illinois for 150 years. Family stories connected with many of our photos make for great story ideas.

This is Huge Kirkwood my great-great-uncle he and his brother joined the gold rush of 1849. Hugh became ill and stayed back. When he went to join William he was never found. A family mystery that gives me so many story ideas.

All the pictures in this blog are from these family photo archives. The advantage for me in sharing these is none have copyright issues and I can use them without concern. I don’t need to ask permission to post them because the photos belong to me and the relatives are all deceased. I can also use these photos in articles and guest blogs to promote your upcoming historical novel.

Do you have photos of your ancestors? If you write any historical genre do those pictures give you ideas?



Pictorial Reflections on July 4th Celebrations


President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Independence Day an official federal holiday in 1941. The Fourth of July has taken on many forms in various geographic areas of the country since the first commemoration on July 4, 1777. Rural settings celebrations had neighborhood potlucks with group games such as potato sack and three-legged races. Families enjoyed visiting and rarely were there fireworks. But time away from daily chores made the day just as exciting. The mayor or some other dignitary read the Declaration of Independence and other well-known speeches of our forefathers. People hung on every word. Then exploded with applause when the recitations were finished. Patriot music commemorate the day.

I’ve collected some photos of July 4th celebration throughout history.  It’s fun to see how the holiday has evolved.


Some things never change.



ripley 4th 1890s

Early 1900s parade.


Notice the greased pig  and slippery pole contests.

1 Grand Army of the Republin in Parade

Civil War Veterans march in a parade circa 1890s

lutzhistory july4th1910srace

A women’s foot race early 1900s.

Fourth of July celebration, hurdle race (colored)

Hurdle race at an African American celebration. Looks painful.

Check out the photos below. Children portraying the fife and drum players from the revolutionary war often were parts of parades during my childhood. Not the tricycles in the last group. Bike parades around a neighborhood were not uncommon in the 1950s and 1960s. The other two picture are taken decades earlier.


Uncle Sam appeared in every 4th of July celebration.

Ben Shahn - At the July 4th celebration, Ashville, Ohio, 1938

What decade do you think this is?


Parade photo

Parades still continue to mark the day.



Do you recall all the Independence Day fun you’ve enjoyed? Don’t forget to take a moment to thank God for the freedom you have.