Carol MacKay can’t walk past a bin of vintage portraits forlornly gathering dust in an antique store or thrift shop. She feels compelled to stop and look through the stack of discarded images. 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 must place 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 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 evidence in the image, Carol has learned to date an image to within a few years of when it was made. 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.
Other times, Carol posts the photo 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 had written 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 did Carol get started?
When Carol was growing up, her family lived above their variety stores in Ryley, a small village southeast of Edmonton, Alberta. Built 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 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 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.” It is 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 a 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, makes 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 is a concern.
“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 the 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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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So shall we pull out our cell phones and upload some photos to order some prints? Why not? They would make great Christmas gifts, especially if you note the pertinent information on the back of each photo.
Future generations of your family may be very grateful that you took the time to think of them.
Thanks for reading. I’m excited to hear your comments.