Looking for stories that old pictures tell

Local genealogical society studies old photographs for clues to family history

Posted: Sunday, May 22, 2005

History isn't some tired subject people are forced to learn in school, a co-founder of the Gastineau Genealogical Society said Saturday.

"It's his story," Dick Kent said. He presides at the group's meetings 20 years after it started. For that matter, history is your family's story he said.

And it can be a puzzle.

"I like solving puzzles," said Heidi Girter, who came to Saturday's genealogical society meeting at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a handed-down family photograph that she is trying to learn more about. It shows a group of young people, apparently at some sort of commencement. An older man with a unique ruffled collar sits at center.

Other members of the group noted that a boy was wearing spats and that the boys' collars were separate from their shirts.

Girter said she believes the picture was taken between 1910 and 1914, which would have been after her family came to Tacoma, Wash., from Bod, Norway. She has older pictures, but most of those have writing on the back, she said.

One of the ways to piece together the puzzle of the past is through old photographs. Beckie Chenoweth, who said she has been coming to the society's meetings for two years, talked to the group about clues that point to when pictures were taken.

It isn't just a matter of looking at the fashions, she said. "A grandmother can wear a dress that's 50 years out of date. Dating photographs is more than just the costume."

By looking at a lot of old photographs at historical sites on the Internet, people can get an idea of certain things they have in common, she said. For example, in the early 1800s, children were dressed as little adults. By the early 1900s, they were dressed more like dolls.

"You will find pictures that look like your pictures," Chenoweth said. With old pictures, it's important to keep an open mind, she added. "Lots of times you do the research and what you think you're looking at and what you've got can be different."

There can some fun in figuring out the history of pictures, "sleuthing them out," Chenoweth said. The old pictures in her family ended up with her, she said, because people knew from questions she asked that she was interested in the family history. Her daughter took some of the old pictures to put them to good use in a scrapbook, but in an age of computer scanners, people can now more easily share their pictures.

Members of the group agreed that pictures are more fun for people to look at than the "pedigree charts" that genealogists put together.

Reading clues in old pictures will be one of the items covered this fall when the society holds a genealogy informational fair.

Kent said the fair, still in the planning stages, will probably be held in April. It will be geared to people who want to begin work on tracking down their ancestors as well as people who want more help as they try to fill out their family trees.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.

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