Don't Toss Old Photos

Updated on January 31, 2020
Virginia Allain profile image

I'm carrying on my mother's research into our family history. I've self-published some family memoirs & learned a lot about different eras.

Time to Identify Your Photos


Problem: A Box of Photos With No Names or Dates

You think you'll always remember the people in the photograph and the event. Unfortunately, once 30 or 40 years goes by, the memory may not be as clear, or—worst-case-scenario—you might die. If no one knows who the people in the photo are, it becomes fairly meaningless.

All too often, the descendants just toss out those pictures that are unlabeled. That's really sad to see family history dumped in the trash. Don't let that happen in your family. Label your own photos.

Now, if these are inherited photos and not labeled, you have a bit of work ahead. Whatever you do, don't toss those photos.

Oh No! There Are No Names in This Album


Look for Related Photos to Compare

Vintage photos were a special occasion activity such as during a visit. Usually, only one person owned a camera so they were taking the picture and weren't in it.

There were 12 pictures on a roll of film. Sort through your photos for similar people and the same clothes and maybe the same scenery and buildings. If you are lucky, one of the photos will be labeled or at least give you more clues for the time, place, and possibly people.

A genealogy blogger said, "It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the picture looks like.

More Ideas for Identifying Photos

If you inherited a batch of photos from a relative but have no idea who the people in the pictures are, here's what you can do:

  • Check with aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. See if they recognize anyone.
  • Ask everybody, including neighbors or members of the church that your relatives belonged to.
  • Post some on Facebook and tag any relatives who are on there.
  • If they are very old, check to see if your genealogy library or local historical society has family photos. Look for your grandparent, aunts, and uncles to compare with what you have.
  • Check on the genealogy sites like Ancestry for photos others have shared of their ancestors/their siblings/children, etc. that match your name. I'll look for people who are sharing the most photos and adding information and then send them a message looking to see if they can help me.


Check the Photo on Tineye.

Add the Tineye app to your computer and check photos with it. The search turns up other matching photos online. This helps you identify yours.

I'm Glad My Ancestors Saved These Photos

I'm working on a book about this Civil War ancestor (Abraham Bates Tower). It's great to have the photos to use with it.
I'm working on a book about this Civil War ancestor (Abraham Bates Tower). It's great to have the photos to use with it. | Source

A Friend Says She Is Dumping Her Family Photos

It appalled me to hear a friend say casually that she was going to toss the unnamed photos she inherited. I turned to a photo identification group that I joined on Facebook and asked them for advice.

A photo expert suggested these steps:

I hope that she has contacted everyone in her family to see if they are interested in owning them. I was able to identify many family photos when I connected with a cousin who had photos with the same people in them.

I found copies of some of the other photos on Ancestry and was able to identify them from there.

Contact the genealogical and historical societies in your area and see if they may be interested. Your friend should be able to give some surnames that may be connected to the photos.

Please talk her out of dumping them.

Are Your Photos Labeled?


Don't Leave the Next Generation With This Problem

For any photos that you print out, take some time to write the names and dates on the back. Make sure you put the names and dates on the digital images, too.

Additional information is a bonus, but at least get the basics. I'm sorting my mother's photo collection, which includes some that she inherited. She was pretty good about writing the names on them, but some just say "Ren" or "Harriet's son." I know Ren is my grandfather, Lorenzo Martin, but if I don't write that out, will the next generation know that?

The other name, Harriet, doesn't ring a bell, so I need to scan that photo and see if my cousins on Facebook can help me identify it. It would have helped if she had put Harriet's son, Joe. With a number of Harriets on the family tree, now I have to guess which is the right one.

Get the Photos Labeled

This is my mother's handwriting and she names the parent and grandparent, but fails to name the person in the photo.
This is my mother's handwriting and she names the parent and grandparent, but fails to name the person in the photo. | Source

What You Need for Labeling Photos

Zig 0.7mm Photo Signature Marker, Carded, Black
Zig 0.7mm Photo Signature Marker, Carded, Black
This is an example. You are looking for archival quality, non-bleeding, fade-proof, acid-free pen. Buy one online or in the scrapbooking section of a craft store or Walmart. I've used this one and some other brands. Even with non-bleeding, be sure the ink is dry before stacking the newly labeled photos or placing them in a box with other photos. Label them on the back, not on the face of the photo itself.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Virginia Allain


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    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 months ago from Houston, Texas

      I am so glad that while my mother was still alive, we went through all the collections of photos that she had, and we got them labeled. I then put them into photo albums in order from the oldest to the youngest dates. Since that time, I also scanned them and shared them online with relatives who were interested.

      Perhaps this post of yours will encourage people to do the same thing.

    • Luis G Asuncion profile image

      Luis G Asuncion 

      7 months ago from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines

      It is so cool to found out old pictures specifically if the people in those images are not familiar with us. Of course, we are obliging ourselves to ask older people than us. This article to lovely to read. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Virginia Allain profile imageAUTHOR

      Virginia Allain 

      8 months ago from Central Florida

      I hope you can contact some of her siblings or perhaps a long-lived aunt or uncle of hers to help identify the people. It would be a shame to have them wasted. It's your family history. Try to match up some of the identified ones with the earlier people without names.

    • profile image

      Marsha Cooper 

      8 months ago

      We have been recently cleaning out my mother's house. Her photos do have names and dates, but the ones dating many years earlier, for the most part, don't.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      8 months ago from North Central Florida

      Wise words of advice. I have treasured memories of viewing the 'antique' photos now in my possession. Many were taken long before I was even born. What a treasure to pass on to my grandchildren. thanks for sharing....Angels are headed your way this evening ps

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 

      8 months ago from United States

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. Tineye is new to me. I will check that out.

    • MariaMontgomery profile image


      8 months ago from Central Florida, USA

      This is a great article, Virginia. I have some old photos that I'm working on identifying. One says, "at Uncle Wes's". I know that the person's Uncle Wes was my great grandfather, but I don't know who the people in the photo are. I'm looking forward to finding out.


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