Carol MacKay can’t bring herself to walk past a bin of vintage portraits gathering dust in an antique store or thrift shop. She feels compelled to stop and look through the stack of discarded images. Then she carefully scrutinizes the front and the back of each picture.
“I always wonder who these people were and how their pictures came to be discarded,” says the Canadian genealogist and writer from Qualicum Beach, British Columbia.
So Sad, Too Bad
Unfortunately, there’s no identification on the backs of most abandoned portraits. Even the city or town of the photographer may not be visible. Regretfully, Carol places those anonymous faces back in the haphazard pile to gather more dust.
Sometimes, though, Carol’s pulse quickens when she spots a photograph with several promising clues.
It may be a signature or an uncommon surname neatly printed or scrawled on the back in pencil. Perhaps it’s a date and/or place along with a photographer’s name and location stenciled on the portrait. Sometimes, a noteworthy home or building differentiates an old photo.
Carol carries that picture to the cash register.
That’s why I consider her a Champion of Second Chances!
A Puzzle Waiting to be Solved
“I’d been a genealogist for a couple of decades when I began purchasing some orphaned photographs that had a fair amount of usable information,” she says.
In her spare time, Carol undertakes this challenging detective work drawing on her skill and natural curiosity.
“Say it’s a picture of a woman. I work to document basic information. Where she was born, who her family members were, whom she married, when and where she died and was buried?
“I use a variety of online sources like Ancestry.com and Find-A-Grave, plus print resources at the library to research each subject or subjects in a photograph.”
By examining the clothing, the photograph’s format and other clues in the image, Carol has learned to date an image to within a few years of when it was taken. If the photographer had been prominent, the archives of his work may be available online. That provides Carol with even more information.
She Is Good, Very Good
In the last 22 years, Carol has reunited more than 300 photographic images with grateful family historians or genealogists in Canada, the U.S. and England. Thanks to her efforts, those families then can pass down an ancestor’s image to future generations.
Carol also posts photos on her website when she is unable to identify descendants. She describes it as “an archive of found family photos and artifacts.” Then she sits back and waits to be contacted. It happens, too.
Visit http:/familyphotoreunion.blogspot.com and see for yourself.
“If someone recognizes a family member from my post, they usually email me to ask if they can receive a copy of the photo. I watermark the online images for blog security purposes. However, I’m happy to send a clean copy to anyone who wants one. I will send originals to direct line descendants and to closely related individuals outside the line if they are willing to share with others.
“Many people never tell me they want to use a certain photograph. They simply copy the image down to their family tree. The watermark ensures that the provenance of the photo, in other words where it came from, is recorded,” Carol explains.
Seeking remuneration for pursuing vintage photo reunions is the furthest thing from Carol’s mind. The pleasure of returning a lost image to its rightful family is all the payment she seeks.
Her methodical research can take weeks or years.
“I never give up hope. If I can’t find information on a subject, it’s largely because I’m missing a piece of information. I might be misreading a name or the records I need haven’t been digitized yet. Many times, revisiting and reworking a photograph that’s a difficult case will yield the information I must have.”
Why you’re Little Patrick!
“One reunion that really stands out in my mind is reuniting a photo postcard of an adorable toddler. On the back of the photograph taken in England was a touching note a father wrote about his son, Patrick.
After she posted information about the photo on the now-defunct Rootsweb forum, Carol received a note from Patrick himself in 2005. By then he was a man in his 70s who lived in Ontario.
Carol mailed Patrick the original photo, providing him with a record of his father’s words in his own handwriting. That was not something Patrick possessed or ever expected to find.
His father’s message touched Patrick deeply.
“One day when I was digging around in my heritage garden, a man walked up and began visiting with me. When he identified himself, I said, “Oh, you’re Little Patrick!”
“He laughed, but to me, he will always be Little Patrick.”
Patrick had flown to Calgary to visit relatives and then driven 200 km (124 miles) to stop by and thank Carol in person.
How Carol Get Started
When Carol was growing up, her family lived above their variety store in Ryley, a small village southeast of Edmonton, Alberta. Constructed in 1938, the building served for many years as a doctor’s office and drugstore, with the telephone exchange office on its north side.
During the 13 years that her parents operated that business, Carol’s lifelong fascination with antiques and history took root.
“I’d part the cobwebs in the store’s concrete basement and poke around among the relics from the old days when I was a kid. There were things like glass oil lamps, vintage medicine bottles and a piece of antiquated telephone equipment. I tapped out stories, poems and letters for years and years on a 1925 Remington Standard typewriter that I dragged upstairs,” Carol recalls.
She credits her interest in genealogy to her eighth-grade Social Studies teacher, Mr. Voegtlin. He assigned the class the task of creating a pedigree chart.
“When I asked my parents to help me fill it out, I was surprised they could only go back to the names of their great-grandparents. I decided then and there to see if I could uncover more information about my Danish, American, Swedish and German roots.
“That started my lifelong family tree project that I’m still working on today.”
Carol recently completed a 40-course program at the National Institute for Genealogical Studies at the University of Toronto, St. Michael’s College. This in-depth education further enhances her skills.
A Case in Point
In an Alberta antique mall, Carol discovered five small carte de visite photographs. This style of photograph, patented in Paris by photographer André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri in 1854, is the size of a “visiting card,” approximately 2 1/8 by 3 1/2 inches.
“I suspected the faces belonged to the same family because they bore a photographer’s imprint from Mansfield, Ohio. They were identified as Rachel Mecklem, James Mecklem and Cloyd Mecklem. Rachel’s photograph has been trimmed and the photographer’s name cut off, but the location was still visible.
“Rachel’s photograph that had square corners on a white mount with a simple double-lined border, thick card stock and blank background indicated an 1860s timeframe.”
The dropped sleeve line on Rachel’s dress hinted of an 1865-1868 timeframe. Her hairstyle, parted in the center and pulled back tightly over her ears, indicated the latter half of that decade. Carol also noted that Rachel wore a wedding band.
“Locating a group of family photos helps me confirm family relationships and verify I am on the right research track,” she says.
Digging Into Rachel’s Story
Carol’s online research showed that Ollie Etz was born June 2, 1874, in Washington, Richland County, Ohio. Her parents were Christian Etz and Rachel Mecklem.
Carol went on to discover that Rachel had been married twice. Her first husband, a Civil War veteran named William C. Ridenour, died in 1869 at the age of 26. Their only child, William Mecklem Ridenour Jr., was born after his father’s death. Christian Etz was Rachel’s second husband.
Rachel died on Dec. 26, 1875, in Jefferson, Ohio.
“The clues present in the photograph, plus more information I found in the records, make me believe that this portrait of Rachel Mecklem was taken around 1866-1869, not long after her first marriage.
“It would be wonderful if these images could make their way back to one of Rachel’s descendants,” Carol says.
Yes, wouldn’t it?
Digital Photo Thoughts
The proliferation of digital photos creates an interesting dilemma for family historians and keepers of family heirlooms. Never have there been more photos taken and never have fewer been printed. They are stored on our phones instead.
“Consider making hard copy versions of some photos, particularly those that will be of interest to future generations,” Carol suggests.
The vast number of old photographs being shared indiscriminately online concerns Carol.
“A photo that appeared on FamilySearch was supposedly my third great-grandfather, but I immediately knew it wasn’t because the dates didn’t match up. When I inquired, I was told the person who posted it had found it “somewhere on the internet.” Unfortunately, that image likely had been copied into dozens of online family trees.”
As much as she wants to add a new face to her family tree, Carol doesn’t get carried away with excitement. She has to have reliable, written proof of where an undocumented image comes from and how it was methodically identified.
If that data is unavailable, Carol is not interested.
Would you do Carol a favor?
“If you have family photos in your possession please label them now, preferably with name, date and place. That one simple step will make it easier for family members who inherit the photos to understand their genealogical value. Unidentified photos at some point will likely get tossed,” she says.
Carol also suggests sharing photographs with other lines of your family. She says your great-grandparents are very likely the great-grandparents of other people who may be grateful to have a photograph of your common ancestor. Making high-resolution digital copies of images is easy and doesn’t cost anything.
Perhaps a distant relative will return the favor someday!
If you have some unidentified photos that include some usable information, Carol accepts originals of pre-1927 images that she will make an effort to reunite with their families. Email her at: email@example.com.
* * *
So shall we pull out our cell phones and upload some photos to order some prints? Why not? They would make great gifts, especially if we take the time to note the pertinent information on the back of each photo, but not in ink that will smear, please.
Future generations of your family may be very grateful.
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There are actually quite a few people like Carol who have made a hobby of finding appropriate homes for antique store photographs. In the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives in La Grange, Texas, we have been the lucky recipients of more than a few “lost” photographs. While we keep the photographs in our Archives, it is our policy to share scanned images free of charge to relatives and local historians. We will even accept unidentified photographs, as long as they were taken by Fayette County photographers.
Rox Ann, what an admirable hobby reuniting vintage photos with their families is! The work that the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives in La Grange does to save and protect the images of old Fayette County photographers is priceless. If readers have some old photos with a local photographers’ imprint can they contact the Archives? They may not be aware that you are willing and able to offer this service to preserve images of local people that don’t necessarily have names (at least not yet). Also, how old do the photos need to be before the Archives is interested? Thank you so much for writing.
Elaine, we prefer that most photos are portrait style, just because they tend to be more recognizable. The exception would be if a snapshot has something of significance in the background. The photographs can be fairly recent. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I appreciate your explanation of what kind of photos the Archives is particularly interested in receiving and the timeframe. I’m hoping your description generates some interest.
Rox Ann, I think it’s wonderful that the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives collects these images–it’s a wonderful resource for genealogists and future generations. If I find any photographs taken by Fayette County photographers, I will certainly send them on to you since I love the idea that the public can freely access them.
Wonderful article with valuable information. I have a number of family photos that I continue to try and identify. But then, who doesn’t. Thank you for writing these informative stories that encourage us to document our families.
Glad you enjoyed hearing about Carol’s efforts, Gesine. I hope your unidentified ancestors will someday have names! Thank you for writing.
Regarding the Fey and Braunig wedding photo, in 2010 the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange, Texas published a book, “Weddings of the Past: Early Texas Years to 1958.” It contains over 600 wedding photographs of Czech couples in Texas. I haven’t checked it yet for your photograph, but it is a wonderful resource that we refer to regularly in the Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives in La Grange.
Thanks for pointing to “Weddings of the Past: Early Texas Years to 1958” published by Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange, Texas, as another source to help identify portraits of couples that likely have Texas Czech heritage. I look forward to checking it out!
Enjoyed reading your interesting story and especially the valuable information towards the end. I took a few screenshots to remind myself how important it is to get back over to mother’s soon to identify those old family photos. Thanks!
It’s crazy and kinda sad. I have tons of photo albums then a few years ago… it just stopped.
It’s so easy to print photos, fill up some albums and then delete them off my phone. I’ll call them my “phone pics albums.” Great idea! Thanks again, Elaine.
Rhonda, I’m happy the post was of interest to you. You’re right about all those albums. Wow! We have gotten out of the habit. Good idea to print some and start a “phone pics” album. I bet your Mom would welcome your interest in your family’s old photos. It is a good time of year to consider this! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Great story! Thanks.
Thanks for the feedback, Marie.
Great story Elaine! I’m still working on identifying the unknown people in the photos you sent me in our family.
Thanks, Janine. Because you are an avid historian and skilled writer/researcher your words of praise mean a lot. I was amazed when you identified our common ancestors, Jane and Frances Anne Fendall earlier this year. It was very exciting to not only put a name with a face but also learn a little about them. Like Carol, you are very methodical in your research and I admire your mindset. Do you find bins of unidentified vintage portraits in thrift shops and antique malls in Australia and New Zealand?
I love fossicking around our local antique and collectible stores but old portraits is something I rarely come across – strange now that I think about it.
That’s very interesting and a comment on your country’s culture. Thank you, Janine.
What an interesting story! Carol’s talent and kindness has made many people happy I’m sure.
Rabbit, you can see why I consider Carol a “Champion of Second Chances” like you and Barbara, whom I highlighted in an earlier post. https://elainethomaswriter.com/champions-of-second-chances-part-1/
All three of you ladies see beyond what’s in front of you and reach deep in your hearts to create something that most of us miss!
Awesome writing, Elaine. Carol has inspired me to share my photos with my cousins and to label each one.
I, too, love searching for old photos and wonder how the family could part with them. I especially like the photos of people wearing glasses with old frames from the 30’s and 40’s.
Thanks for sharing Carol’s passion
Your cousins are going to be so surprised and so grateful that you think enough of them to share your photos. What a beautiful gesture, Donna! From now on when I see old photos with subjects wearing those interesting old glass frames I will think of you! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Thanks, Elaine, for sharing the story of my Family Photo Reunion project. You are such a terrific writer–I hope others will be inspired to preserve their family images and share them with others. Thanks so much!
Carol, it has been fascinating to learn how you approach the reunification of photos and families. Thanks for sharing your passion for items from the past!
If Mom and Grandma and old Aunt “Esther” are still alive, sit down with them and the box of old photos to try to identify as many as possible. A day will come when it’s too late and there’ll be no one left to ask 🙁
Been down that sad road…
You’re so right, Fred. I think we have all felt like we missed the boat in not asking questions of our elders when we had the chance. Thanks for the reminder.
A very interesting story. Carol is an excellent detective!
Our family has our grandmother’s velvet photo album on her maternal side of the family tree. Most of the photos are unlabelled. The hairstyles, clothing, studio settings have always fascinated me. I have my father’s photo albums from post-war times, photos unlabelled. I wish, too, I could have asked about who was in each photo.
I share your regret, Anne, that I didn’t ask more questions. I guess it never occurred to us that at some point in our lives those unidentified photos would be precious to us, especially is they were identified. The one thing we can do is make sure our photos are preserved, dated and the events or individuals described. Thanks for writing!
What a great post! It’s such fascinating work that Carol does and I’m popping over to her site to have a peek. Thanks for the reminder to label the backs of photos. I have so many and no one else will have a clue who they are after I’m gone.
Yes, people like Carol make a difference in our world by creating meaningful links between individuals, families and communities. So glad you enjoyed this post, Linda!
Carol’s efforts are important. Yours too for sharing her story and for motivating us.
Thanks, Martha. We all need a reminder that chores like identifying photos are easy to put off till ‘someday,’ but deserve some attention as time allows. The good part of that activity is a golden opportunity to stroll down memory lane.
Nice post! Yes, writing on photos is so important. I have some of the family photos of the Mansfield County Mecklems, which I bought on eBay some years ago. Rachel Mecklem was a first cousin of my 2nd-great-grandfather, David Newton Mecklem. I listed her daughter Ollie in my 2014 Mecklem family history as Oira Olive Etz… I didn’t have her nickname, though!
That was an awesome eBay find, Todd. Nice going! Maybe writing on the back of more of our photos can be a practical new year’s resolution!