Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Giving Back Again

We often hear about “The Gift that Keeps on Giving.” While such a thought sounds dreamy at first, in the end, I am not sure how valid that saying is.

However, I can think of one gift that, at first, seems like the genealogist’s dream—but then, turns around and starts kicking and tormenting the very person who once welcomed it.

While I’m sure you can think of several examples of such a “gift,” I’ll cut to the chase here and explain what I’m talking about: the “gift” of a box of old photographs—usually from a deceased relative—which turn out to be pictures without labels.

Think of it: staring into the eyes of the long-departed, despairing at the thought that you could save their memory for posterity…if only you knew their names!

When that happened to me—I inherited a box loaded with snapshots from dear departed Uncle Bill—I wasn’t so creative with my solution. I just stuck the box back up on a shelf in the closet for oh, say, twenty years. Not that those twenty years worked any wonders on my memory. They still are faces of people I never knew, so how can I remember them?!

Some people are more creative with their mystery photo boxes: they sell them to antique stores. At least, that is what appears to be happening, judging from the proliferation of blogs on photos and other vintage ephemera.

My first and most favorite blog on these orphan photos is Forgotten Old Photos. If you’ve been following along here, you realize that I am indebted to the writer of that blog for inspiration to give it a try, myself: post those old photos and see if anyone in the Great Internet Beyond stumbles upon a recognizable face.

That is one way of giving back that I rather favor.

Think of it: a photo from seventy or one hundred years ago, reunited with progeny of the picture’s own, now-long-gone subject. I always wish someone like that blogger would stumble upon the missing photos of my own families!

People are finding other ways to give back, when it comes to these vintage photographs. Another one of my favorite bloggers—journalist Paul Lukas, a fancier of all things ephemera—once mentioned on his blog, Permanent Record, an artist who not only saves these tossed treasures from destruction, but gives them a new lease on life as her own artistic creations. This Brooklyn, New York, artist—Lauren Simkin Berke—has made a project of sketching old photos she finds at flea markets. After a successful studio exhibit of her work, she launched a Kickstarter project to fund publication of a book containing her work. All this has become one artist’s way of giving back. Regarding the rescue work she does on these pictures from the past, she does this “in order to give them a new, longer life.”

We have others in the genealogy community online who wish to do the same. Whether simply passing these photos along, or using them as springboards for further inspiration, these bloggers regularly post their discoveries for the world to find.

Whether doing their work anonymously, as does “The Archivist” for Family Photo Reunion, or shyly and partially-named like the writers behind Grandma’s Picture Box and Unclaimed Ancestors, these people are, in their own way, giving back to the genealogy—and broader—community.

In a gift-giving season, these are the givers I most appreciate.

Above left: cover for the sheet music of "Santa Claus Galop," by Charles Kinkel, published by J. L. Peters in New York, 1874; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. This summer my Mother gave me two albums of CdV's. she remembers they came from her parents house..that is all..no idea which side of the family they came from. I was so happy to get them..and so disappointed that they were not marked. So personally I keep one eye out for old photos of my family too.
    Yesterday I sent out a photo to a gal who is going to give the photo (of her Grandmother as a young lady) to her Mother for Christmas..I am so excited to hear about that reaction..:)

    1. Far Side, I know you make someone's day when you find those photos and reunite them with long-lost family--and it makes a wonderful story, too!

      How frustrating to find your own mom handing you unmarked photos! But, true confessions, so will I to my own daughter if I don't get my act together and finish labeling everything. We take so many pictures nowadays and think nothing about preserving them for those who have no way to know who they are.

      Oh, well, for your sake, here's hoping there are copies of the stuff somewhere out there--sent to someone who made sure to mark down the names!

  2. Your Christmas series is filled with thoughtful ideas.

    1. Thank you Wendy! I love Christmas time and almost everything associated with it.

  3. Bummer...missed your radar with my orphan photo blog, Who Will Tell Their Story? at http://telltheirstory.blogspot.com.

    1. Now, that is one that flew under my radar, Julie! Thanks for mentioning it! Looks like a useful blog...as does your other one I wasn't aware of :)

    2. No worries, just thought I'd share. Just had another photo reunion a few weeks ago, which is always fun. I've terrible about keeping up with the writing one only because I've been debating about whether to combine all 3 into one magazine-style blog...just haven't had time to devise a plan yet :)

    3. Oh, Julie, I can so relate to you there. It does really all come down to having a plan and working it. Both options have their pluses as well as down sides. The main thing is to be able to devote the attention each one deserves. Sometimes, that's hard, when everything is divided and distributed all over the map. Wishing you well as you make the reorganization decision.


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