Old Photographs – Don’t forget to look on the back!

A while back I did a post about a couple of photographs in our old family album where my family do not recognise the people in the photographs. Usually when I have a photograph I am a bit unsure of I will take a look on the back of it for any clues that might help me garner a bit more information about it to help me narrow down some possibilities.

The first thing of course is to check to see if anyone has ever written anything on the back – it is always helpful if your relatives have written things like ‘Uncle Fred in France 1944’ on the back of a photograph of a man in Army uniform, as then you can work out which  member of your family had an Uncle Fred who was old enough to have been serving in the Forces at that time – and work out that your Mum had an Uncle Fred from her mother’s side – and bingo!


The back of a photo of my paternal grandfather sent back home during the war.

But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes we need to dig a bit further.

If you are lucky, you might find the name of the photographer’s studio on the back (and sometimes impressed or embossed on the front.) With that information you can look up about when that photographer was in business – if an address is given you can often check how long they traded at that specific address for to narrow down a time-frame for when the photograph was taken.

It is also very important to share these photographs with family members no matter how distant a cousin they might be. In the 1800s and early 1900s, having a photograph taken wasn’t an ordinary daily event for most people. Only the wealthy could really afford to have many photographs or even cameras of their own. So most working class people would have only had photographs taken to mark a special occasion, like an engagement, marriage or christening. They might have had a few copies done in order to send to other family members. So you may find that distant cousins might well have a copy of the same photograph – and they might have something more helpful written on the back of their copy or know much more about it.

One example I have is a photograph of a woman who for a time I thought might be connected to my 2x great grandfather Adam Hallas. Her photograph was in an album together with several others relating to his family so naturally I assumed they were related. I thought that perhaps she could be a sister of his or even his first wife Margaret but I soon realised that the photograph dated to long after Margaret had died.

The photograph in question is shown below – original and a restored version and the back of it.

Image Image


When I had thought it might be Margaret, I started wondering whether her and Adam had really had a child together after all, but nope. So who was the Robert that this had been addressed to, but more importantly why did we have it and not Robert?

I looked up the information about the photography studios Van Ralty to find that they were trading from 1911 up to 1933. At that time I had no one in my tree who remotely fitted the bill to be around at that time who had a son Robert.

Some years went by and I had largely forgotten about the mystery woman until I made contact with a lovely lady on Ancestry who was researching for a family friend of hers. I had over the years been gradually adding information to my tree about some of the siblings of my direct ancestors and the person she had contacted me about was a Mary McDonald – sister to my 2x great grandmother Eunice McDonald (mentioned in my post Who are the people in that photo?) Mary was born in 1859 in Mossley, Lancashire and I had tracked down Mary’s marriage to a Robert Ashworth in 1883 in Oldham, Lancashire and had been putting the information on my tree about their children, their census entries and anything else I had found out about them.

While I was swapping information back and forth with this new found contact, I starting thinking about that photograph again and little things starting clicking into place. The Van Ralty studios had a branch in Oldham where Mary had settled and she did indeed have a son called Robert – born in 1896. I sent my scanned copy over for her to show to her friend and waited…

It was her! A photograph of her son Robert revealed they were very alike and it was so nice to have a confirmation of who this woman was. I still have no idea why my family ended up with a photograph that was meant to go to Robert. Perhaps Mary had sent a copy to Eunice but got them mixed up and Robert had ended up with one that read ‘To Eunice from your sister Mary’!

Even if you don’t find any other clues on the back of your photographs (like a lot of ones I have that were just printed onto generic postcards with no photographers details on) you might find some other interesting quirky things.

Here is a collection of details from the backs of some photographs I have:


A shopping list on the back of a photograph of my grandfather at work.


Another shopping list on this one, but what interests me is that this photograph is of my grandmother Joan stood with the mother of her ex fiancé Eric – but has noted on the back ‘From your loving wife Joannie’. It amuses me that you would send your husband a photograph of yourself with your ex’s Mum!


Looks like someone was practising their writing on this one. It could have been my Dad, but it is on the back of a photograph of my grandmother as a child.


This one is quite good as it lists family members and friends – presumably some list for sending something like Christmas cards. This is the back of a photograph of my Dad’s uncle and his wife.


Here my maternal grandmother has made a list of what looks like actors and actresses. Top of the list appears to be Jane Wyman – who was married to Ronald Reagan for 8 years!
The address is the one for the Queen Victoria’s Rifles Headquarters. Bit of an odd combination!

It is always worth posting your photographs on forums like Rootschat to see if people can help provide a date it might have been taken or help identify certain details like army regiments or other uniforms to help identify your mystery people.

I do wish my family had a lot more photographs, but certainly going back, both sides of my family were not particularly wealthy enough to have had lots of photographs taken, but hopefully some other branches of my family might have others which they can share with me too.


11 thoughts on “Old Photographs – Don’t forget to look on the back!

  1. I wish that any of the ones I’ve seen had messages or labels on the back! The closest I’ve come to having a photo identified by a random family member is one that was in my great-grandmother’s album that showed a group of people including a young boy who looked a bit – but not totally – like one of my mother’s cousins. Anyway, I got chatting to a gentleman who was descended from a sibling of one of my great-grandparents and sent him some photos I had of them, and included the photo with the strange boy, asking if he had any idea. Turns out that the boy was him – and although he vaguely recalled the photo being taken had never seen the picture!

    • Ha love it!
      My Mum’s Mum was pretty good for writing on the back explaining who people were, but there were a lot from Brazil that have nothing on the back.
      Would love to track down any other families who were living in Rio with my grandfather and his parents at the same time.
      Still hoping some family members on the Hallas side might have a few more photos hanging around! Lots of promises but no follow through!

  2. I heard a tip recently that even photo backs that appear blank should be scanned and then adjusted and often faded pencil writing will show up. I haven’t tried it myself but thought it was an interesting idea.

    • It is a good idea. I really do scrutinise my photos for any tiny marks just in case there is a possibility something is written there. I have a few with random pencil scribbles on that I could probably fiddle about with to see if I can make out what they say a bit better.

      I always make sure that when I scan the backs I name them to ensure they can easily be matched back to the front of the photograph! Nothing worse than having them scanned in but then getting mixed up and having no idea which one relates to which photo!

      I just wish that people wrote on the backs of photos a lot more! Especially the ones that really intrigue me!

      • I agree. I have a few photos that I have pretty strong suspicions about who is in them but no way to prove it. Too bad someone didn’t take 30 seconds to write something – anything on the back.

  3. hi my names brian hallas,from pennsylvania,i was born in 1958,my grandfathers name was john he was born in clairton pa,i am trying too find info on his dad from england,.

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