Dear Lee, I spent the long Christmas and New Year’s time off sorting through a box of family pictures from years ago. I started throwing them in the box to label later after I stopped doing my elaborate scrapbooks in the 1970s. So here are tips for proper identification of pictures. They include daguerreotypes, stereotypes, tin types, cabinet photographs, newspaper clippings, Polaroids, amateur snapshots taken with a film camera, slides, and online pictures that have not been printed or stored online. I also have some modern devices that show color pictures in no special order and with no identification. And I still have to check the labels on the photos hanging in the hall including the unidentified “Grandma” in an 1890s professional photograph. But I still remember those who are in most of the pictures and usually where or why they were taken.
These instructions are for today’s amateurs to list for future generations. They are not needed by serious photography collectors who can date a picture because they recognize the technology or format used by the camera. If there is a serious genealogist in the family, you can get help determining the age of a person or maybe the house in the picture. We like to start a task like this by doing the easiest part first, so start with the most recent paper photos. You are probably the last person to remember the who, where and when.
On the back of the picture, use a soft-lead pencil and write the names of the people and how to identify them (“Jim in plaid shirt next to Bobbie in a green dress with the children Cathy, Tom, Young Jim, and John.” Add the date and place, “Back yard barbeque at home on Shaker Blvd, 1995.” Seems unnecessary now, but wait 40 years and some of the information will be forgotten.
If you have a class, office or other group picture, try to write the place or event and the full name of each person in the order they are posed so years later, you can remember that your bald friend and old classmate is in the picture in the second row—the boy with the curly hair. If one of your classmates becomes famous as an entertainer, politician, or a philanthropic billionaire, the picture might be sold for a lot of money. Travel pictures should be marked with the date and location Wedding pictures should be kept in a group with all the wedding details and the new relatives.
Get the idea? Every picture needs a full name, date, place, event and any special reason it was taken, maybe winning the spelling bee, Miss America or an Olympic event. Or maybe your first day skiing when you were five years old.
Try to find a way to store the pictures either by family or by year. Buy special boxes and paper that are archival, safe to use to wrap photographs. And don’t store in a hot or freezing attic, a wet basement, or in the heat from a sunny window.