Friday, January 4, 2013

Crowdsourcing the Family Tree

It was a New Year’s Day visit to Far Side of Fifty’s blog, Forgotten Old Photos, that got me thinking.

More than that, it got me feeling guilty, actually.

Far Side had decided to post some old snapshots gathered from antique stores around the state of Minnesota.

Of course, that in itself is not guilt-inducing. There is much more to the story.

If you haven’t already stopped by to check it out, the blog Forgotten Old Photos is built upon a simple idea: each day, take one old photo and post it online, then wait to see if anyone can help figure out any more about the (often only partially identified) subject.

Usually, the pictures are old portraits, often from area photography studios—although some have come from as far away as Norway. This month’s foray into snapshots takes a step away from that professional ambience into the more candid fare of amateur shutterbugs. Like the feature for New Year’s Day.

That snapshot on January first got me thinking. I have a whole box of unidentified snapshots just sitting on a shelf in a dark corner of my bedroom closet. Why not get those pictures out into the light and share them?

On the other hand, as much as that thought is the “pull” enticing me to take action, a second thought stands in its way as the “push” of the “yeah-but.”

You know those “yeah-buts.” They are those annoying, squirmy thoughts that pop up just when you have a good idea—just in time to masquerade as The Voice of Reason, instead of the nay-sayers that they really are.

“Yeah, but those photographs aren’t identified.”

“Yeah, but those pictures are so tiny, so blurry, so nondescript.”

“Yeah, but there isn’t anyone left in that family to recognize them.”

Oh, yeah…

This is the family whose last member unexpectedly passed away at the end of November. There is really no one else to tell the story to, let alone anyone left to help reconstruct facts and identities.

But I know this family’s story. Back several generations, in fact. When I first researched it, there were no online databases to consult. No Not even any Just Family History Centers. And hand-cranked microfilm readers at repositories far enough away to make the trip an all-day event.

So, in memory of the last leaf on this family tree’s branch, and in the hopes that someone out there might be a distant cousin wanting to connect with more information, I’m putting aside all my “yeah-buts” and dragging out that box of old photos.

Along with those unidentified faces, I’ll unfold what I know of that family’s history. Just like almost everyone else’s family story, it will be the story of insignificant people—people living a common life through the uncommon times of history. While wars come and go, inventions change life-as-everyone-always-did-it, and America gets swept off its feet with the first heart-throbs of its continuing love affair with the automobile, this family just kept living life. Generation after generation. Mostly the same as your families. Except some ways.

And maybe—just maybe—in the midst of recounting what I do know about this family, some inquisitive researcher out of the crowd brought here thanks to a perceptive search engine may be able to add just the right two cents worth that will affix a name to some of these nameless faces.

If you are one of those willing to contribute that proverbial two cents’ worth of hints or ideas, please feel free to speak up with a comment. For that is how this crowdsourcing thing works.

1920s automobile family photograph


  1. A couple things the "crowd" offers are another set of eyes and the ability to pick out things you might of missed - as well as the stray expertise of with included items that might aid to further search/research, e.g., in the photo above the old car is a plain vanilla Ford Model T in production from late 1908 to 1926(ish) without marked modification of any sort (making the exact model year nearly impossible to tell). might provide someone (like me) an avenue to investigate further the model year. Another observation might be that it appears the woman is driving (I'm not sure) - but this would have been sort of rare "back in the day" i.e., pre-1920)... and the thought stream cascades - and if readers pick it up and/or add to the dialogue, there is no telling where it might end up (person Auntie Bean was noted in a local newspaper on-line as having gotten a "first in the area" drivers license... who knows!)

    1. Now, there's a thought, Iggy! I never thought about a woman driver. I tend to think this pic was posed, but you never know in this family. I can see Leona, or even her mom, being just the type to blow those stereotypes to smithereens and get out there and drive, herself! Just wait 'til you read what I found in one newspaper about these gals!

  2. I'm with you Jacqui. Part of me says why bother and the other part is telling me you never know. I think I'm going to be an optimist is this department and say that someone, somewhere knows who these people are.

    1. That's what I'm hoping, Chris. know what? Even if no one pops up right away to solve the puzzle, at least I've got the pictures out there. I'm a firm believer in the power of search engines to unlock the information stored in archives, and this blog--and the many others out there--serve as a type of archive, in my opinion. We're cataloging what we've found. And hoping someday it will matter to someone else.

  3. I like your attitude. This post reminds me of the old saying, "Casting your bread upon the waters." You never know what will return, but you live in hope and possibility.

    Come to think of it, I do have some old photos to which I could attach a small group of possible surnames. Instead of trying to "run into" family members who today could identify these people from the late 1800s or early 1900s, I believe I'll put these photos on my posts. With the surnames as "Alt Text" and maybe also captions with question marks.


    1. Good idea about that "Alt Text" label on the photos, Mariann. I'm hesitant to put misleading labels on photos, but perhaps if it were clearly labeled as a guess or possibility, that would help. There's got to be some way to enable the search engines to lead people to make these connections.

  4. is the steering wheel on the wrong side? Never the less it is a wonderful old photo! YeS all old photos should see the light of day!! :)

    1. Now that you mention it, yes, it does seem that way. Or almost as if it were close to the center.

      I'm not one for knowing all the details about old car models, so I'm not really sure about how the design really goes for those old cars. You've mentioned more details from car photos in your blog than I'd ever hope to know!

    2. shows that for the 1906 model year, the steering wheel was on the right-hand side. It's hard to tell from the photo - due to the angle - but it "could" be... I'm by no means definite though.

    3. It sure did look like that steering column was on the right side...or maybe close to center, but leaning right (hmmmm...sounds like a political analysis).

      Getting the date might help resolve identities of the people in the picture...maybe...

  5. The girl standing appears to be wearing a nun's coif.

    1. If Wendy is correct, there you have an exciting clue!

      :) I would think such head gear was common in California farm county though?

    2. Iggy, you have to remember I'm a California transplant, so I don't know much about head gear traditions in the farmlands of California. If the picture was indeed from farm areas, the family's most likely link would be in Fresno. However, I tend to think this is a photo from the Bean family's residences, which were in Alameda as well as Redwood City. While these are cities in their own right now, they most likely had a more bucolic appearance in the early 1900s, despite their "urban" designations.

      And no matter what era or what was used to cover the hair, any woman riding in a "convertible" has always had some concern about what her hair would look like after the ride was over!


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