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Why You Shouldn't Toss Old Photos (Plus Photo ID Tips)

Do you have stacks of old family photos that you don't know what to do with?

Do you have stacks of old family photos that you don't know what to do with?

What to Do With Old Photos With No Names or Dates

You think you'll always remember the people in the photograph and the event. Unfortunately, once a few decades go by, the memory may not be as clear, or—in the worst-case scenario—you might die and take your memories with you. If no one knows who the people in the photos are, they become fairly meaningless.

All too often, descendants just toss out the unlabeled pictures. It's really sad to see family history dumped in the trash—don't let that happen to your precious family photos. It is really important to make sure that your photos are labeled.

Now, if these are unlabeled inherited photos, you have a bit of work ahead. But whatever you do, don't toss them out!

Oh, no! There are no names in this album.

Oh, no! There are no names in this album.

Vintage photos were a special-occasion activity, arranged for only for special events or family reunions. Usually, only one person owned a camera, so they were taking the picture and weren't in it.

In the old days, 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 complete 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 images 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.
I'm working on a book about a Civil War ancestor (Abraham Bates Tower). It's great to have the photos to use with it.

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

Don't Dump Your Family Photos

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

A photo expert made the following comments:

  • 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 own photos labeled?

Are your own 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.

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

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

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


Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 26, 2020:

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 from City of San Jose Del Monte, Bulacan, Philippines on November 22, 2019:

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 (author) from Central Florida on November 16, 2019:

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.

Marsha Cooper on November 15, 2019:

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.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on November 07, 2019:

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

Jill Spencer from United States on November 07, 2019:

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

MariaMontgomery from Coastal Alabama, USA on November 07, 2019:

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.