Down the rabbit hole she goes

My dad is the young boy standing second on the right.

Two years ago I got involved in researching my ancestors. It took over my life. I didn’t have a lot of information. Our family didn’t take many photos. I had nothing for my paternal grandmother and my material grandfather. For the other two grandparents, the few photos I had were taken when they were old. They looked like they fell off the turnip truck old. It’s ok. I don’t take great photos either. It must be a family trait.

During my initial deep dive I fleshed out a family tree. I did well considering my grandparents emigrated from rural areas where I only had church records and not all of them. Parish scribes had their own style. Some used flourishes that made reading them hard. Some were in Latin, some in German and some in Hungarian. Yikes! (I knew my two years of Latin in high school would come in handy and it did!)

I joined an on-line group of people who are researching the same area. I got boatloads of information. I was contacted by people who partially matched my DNA and we worked to find out our connection. I spend 12 hours a day doing this. It was fun.

Then I burned out. I started to hit a lot of dead ends. I couldn’t go back farther because of lack of records (my oldest known relative was born in 1790). I started branching sideways, filling in siblings of my grandparents and their lines. Then I went dark.

Every time someone in the family died, I used the information from their obituary to fill in any unknowns. Other than that, I wasn’t actively working on it.

Last week someone who lives in the home town of my paternal grandmother (in Europe) reached out to me. He had about 20 to 25 formal portraits found in the house next door and he was trying to identify them. (Why oh why don’t people put names and dates on the back of photographs?)

These were professional shots taken at a local studio near me in the early 1900s. They were weddings, families and some individual portraits. The photographs were taken and sent back to “the old country.” All were connected through my paternal grandmother.

At first I wasn’t helpful at all. These people were relatives of my grandmother and I didn’t know what she looked like. Everyone was dead. We never were close to this side.

Then came the epiphany. I opened one photograph of a family and my eyes went to someone who looked just like my brother (wrong time frame though). I studied it and realized it was my paternal grandparents taken around 1913. My dad was around 10 or 11 and he looked just like my brother. Score! This is the only picture I have of my paternal grandmother and one of my uncles.

I recognized a younger grandfather and identified my aunts and uncles. It was like winning the lottery. (Almost!) Now I knew what they looked like when they were young.

With the information I received from my Austrian friend, I was able to fill in more holes. I mined other trees for pictures to help him identify a few more of his portraits. He is using facial recognition programs but they aren’t completely accurate.

This is time consuming and detail-oriented work. Neither of which I’m a fan. Yet…I can’t describe it. I’m finding it strangely rewarding and a huge time suck. Fortunately it’s winter here and the perfect time.

Author’s rant: Dang it! Go write information on the back of your photos! If you find professional photos of old people, make an effort to find out who they belong to.

Funny story: When my brother saw the photograph of my grandparents with their kids he said, “They were a good looking bunch!” He also said, “I never saw them dressed up like that!” When future generations look at photos from our era they may comment on how poorly everyone is dressed. No one seems to dress up these days.

 

86 thoughts on “Down the rabbit hole she goes

  1. Pingback: Just thinking about family | Views and Mews by Coffee Kat

  2. This looks like a photo of my ancestors. The not smiling, black and white.

    Okay, hilarious again, Kate. I relate. I don’t take great photos either. My daughters get on my case about this. I would like to see their photos 30 years from now. 12 hours a day. OM gosh, this is not me. Your Dad and your brother, goosebumps. Of course, it makes sense. I am exhausted just thinking about this entire process. A mystery program, yet, rewarding when pieces start falling into place.

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  3. Did I understand you right that these photographs were sent to / found in Austria? If so, whereabouts? I live in the southeast corner of the country – 15 minutes from both the Hungarian and Slovenian borders. If your relatives came from anywhere near here and I can help you, just let me know! (You can send emails through WP – right?)

    As for doing genealogy work – my sister has been at it for us for 25 years. It is a treasure trove and she is walking talking encyclopedia of our heritage. And just so you know – you are talking to a Mayflower descendant and first cousin of Benjamin Franklin 8 times removed. I’m guessing there are only about a half million other people that can say that!

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    • I am a member of the Burgenland Bunch, an on-line (mostly) group that is doing ancestry research for people with roots in Burgenland. I am listed along with the towns my grandparents came from. A man from Kleinmurbisch (town where my grandmother was born) contacted me to identify old pictures that were found. They were people who emigrated and sent pictures back to the “old country” because they couldn’t afford to travel back. They are all family or friends of the my grandmother. He sent me about 20 to 25 pictures. I didn’t know my paternal grandmother and there wasn’t any family connection here. By chance I recognized my dad (who looks exactly like my brother). I sort of recognize my grandfather but this is the only picture I have of my grandmother. She was born and raised in #29 and emigrated when she was around 20. I can’t send you an email unless you have a contact page on your blog and you don’t.

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  4. What a great photo!!! That must have been such a wonderful feeling when you discovered who it was!!! I think that the more we keep on keeping on and making connections the more chances we have of finding photos like this.And it’s so rewarding. Yay!
    Yes, to the labeling of photos. And now people don’t even print the photos. It’s going to be even worse!

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  5. I love your research, your reward, and your enthusiasm. I say I’m not much into “ancestral history,” and yet on my hallway walls are gorgeous framed black & white and sepia photos of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather and their family of 13 (with my grandmother standing there around 7 years old); of my grandmother on my dad’s side, around 12, wearing her long white Sunday best dress at the convent (where she attended school) and a huge white ribbon bow on her head of long thick hair. Oh, and a large framed photo of my dad when he was 2 with long curls, making him look like a girl. Yes, I love paying homage to my ancestors. Just like you do. And good reminder of adding names to our photos!

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    • I have those photos (like you) on our staircase but most of them are my parents and my husband’s family. This was such a find. I want to see if I can make a photo of just my grandparents from this.

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  6. This is a great story. What an interesting photo to have in your possession. I wonder what the people in the old country really thought of their relatives over here? Proud or jealous? No matter, you are doing wonderfully researching your family. I’m impressed.

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  7. I have so many boxes of unmarked photos that I’ve gathered across a few generations, and they frustrate me, certainly! We do have a lot of family history available to fill in the blanks on the family tree, but when you have photos and have to guess who someone is, that’s very disappointing. Then I think of today and all the digital photos. My kids take thousands. But if they don’t print anything, who will have those fifty years from now? No one, I suspect. It sounds like you have a lot of interesting family history and the more you dig, with patience, the further you’ll go. It’s intriguing, isn’t it?

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    • It is intriguing. I wish I had more information about them to piece together who they were as people. Obviously they were courageous to leave their home knowing they may never see their parents again.

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  8. That facial recognition program sounds interesting. I have pictures of two couples who could be my paternal great great grandparents – they are tin types from around 1860. The couple which my 97 years old aunt has id’d as being them, does not look like anyone else in the family, but the other couple which is suppose to be his daughter resembles both my dad and grandfather. So now I’m left wondering, did my aunt who never met them, mix them up. They were stored in the back of the family bible which had slots for inserting pics with a space for writing below it. Or could someone have taken them out and put them back in the wrong slots. I know you can resemble a parent’s sibling instead of the parents but even I look like the daughter, who got married around 1870, same thin Irish face and deep set eyes. I assume it is a wedding picture. And you are so right about the dressing up – they wore their Sunday best and we’ll be known as the track pants people. I’ve stared at and studied those old photos with a magnifying glass so much it’s driving me nuts!

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    • I don’t know much about facial recognition programs but it’s worth investigating. My oldest brother looks almost exactly like my mother’s brother, while my youngest brother looks like my dad. I don’t look like either but have features of both.

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  9. My friend Carol has researched her tree extensively and in doing so learned we were cousins 11th removed and it goes back through our paternal grandfathers who both hailed from Quebec. It was quite exciting for me since I have no family left, even though it is a distant connection. She hires people to go into records where she cannot read the information (see you were lucky taking Latin) like a German genealogist who was able to physically, as well as electronically, wade through records that are in his native tongue – Carol speaks no foreign languages,but has amassed a ton of ancestral info on all her relatives.

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  10. I’ve thought about doing family research, but my brothers and I are kind of at the end of our particular line so I’m not sure who would be interested beyond us. I do have lots of old photos, but many of them have unknown people in them. I did find out that a great, great, etc., etc. grandfather of mine has a Facebook page.

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  11. I wonder when saying “cheeeeeese” for photos started, because no one ever smiled in old pictures in “olden times” (a term we used to use as kids). Glad you are finding the work rewarding.

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  12. I hear your rant and ways of clothing (we evolved or disrobed) I did part of this project and found out so many photos provided by others, extended family and even a book mentioning the Siglos clan (my dad) TMI, my brain exploded.

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    • The names in my family were so popular that sometimes I came across contradictory documents — birth certificates, marriage and death — that my head hurt trying to figure out which one was the right one. Yep, my brain exploded!

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  13. I recently contacted a cousin about getting some pictures of my dad and his family because I have very few. I have not gone into the ancestry thing because I can see what a time consumer it would be and right now I don’t have that time. Nice family photo.

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  14. Researching can become an obsession but rewarding. Husband has been scanning old photos including negatives but i still have boxes to go through. I do try to write on the back of photos. No, we don’t dress up for photos anymore. What will the future researchers think? Glad you made some connections! Your father’s family looked prosperous.

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  15. When my Mom died, my Dad had died before her, I wasn’t interested then or now about any of my Mom’s or Dad’s family. We were never close to any of them. Nobody has done anything like you are doing on SSNS side of the family. I can see though where it could become a very interesting thing to do, especially when pieces and people begin to fit. I would definitely get caught up in those old photos. I do have a thing for old photos. Great picture up at the top!

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  16. I’m so glad you are back at it – this sort of research is time consuming – (think of it as brain exercises HAHA. )
    SO cool you noticed the similarity in that picture. You are right about notes on the back. Mom did some notations on ours – she knew pencil would fade, but ink will sometimes bled through. If you tape a note to the back, sometimes the tape ages and falls off. My brother has scanned all he could and added notes electronically…but got tired. We need to get back to identifying them.
    Have fun – it’s like a mystery show combined with Cinderella and Law and Order…and maybe War and Peace sometimes
    (And I think you are right about your observation about clothing in pictures – in the future they may all think we suffered a great economic crash considering the outfits?)

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    • Some photos from my childhood are in albums (remember with the past on corners?). Well, the corners unglued and the pictures slide around but you can usually match them up to the notation underneath. Today they make fancy albums. No patience for that here but they are beautiful.

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      • Archival plastic sleeves in a ring binder was mom’s solution – you can slip the picture in after writing notes in perm marker on the outside of the archival photo plastic sleeve.
        HA HA I always hate those corners! They kept coming unstuck and pictures would fall out the bottom of the photo album (the ones we bought for cheap at Woolworth’s in high school) I am so not a scrapbooker…lovely but, no.

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        • I have some plastic sheets with individual slip in slots but you have to have the right size and I never did. There are a few though. I’d love to put together a digital scrapbook that my family could access. I don’t think anyone has the interest that I do but it would be there.

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          • The multiple individual slots were problematic – we eventually just went with what fit in those and left blank slots – and used full sized sheets for most stuff as there didn’t seem to be any typical size and shape.
            Now I think the digital is the way to go – multiple copies. Museums, libraries, and even city newspapers here have begun creating picture archives of history of city/area and history of those who came here. Saving the past will mean something someday to someone – I certainly love peeking at people’s lives from the past

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          • If it is of any interest: I use the plastic inserts/folders/sheet protectors (letter size), but do not write on the outside. Instead I simply create text boxes and stick them on heavyweight white paper at an appropriate place relative to the photos. I like to keep the clear plastic sheet protectors “clear”, because I keep finding bit and pieces that need to be chronologically inserted which often involves a re-org of the inserted sheets.

            I also store my binders flat, because storing them vertically tends to make the clear plastic sheet protectors and contents droop/drop! Something to do with gravity!

            Finally, when the album is complete, I can simply scan all the pages and save as jpg files. I can then copy the jpg files onto a disc and voila …. it can be mailed to whoever.:)

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  17. Great photo.

    Genealogy can be a huge time suck, garnering little more than names and dates to fill in the tree. It’s rare to find the kind of info that gives you a true sense of WHO they were or HOW they lived . . . unless you discover a notorious skeleton in the closet. BOO!

    Nevertheless our minds enjoy filling in the blanks. Like completing crossword puzzles or jigsaw puzzles, filling in the family tree can become addictive. “Oh, let me just get one more . . . ”

    Just remember: If you’re enjoying yourself, it’s not wasted time!

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    • Thanks Nancy, that’s what say when I’m pulling myself away at 8 p.m. There are some little nuggets that you can find. My paternal grandfather visited “the old country” several times. He is the only one to do that. Even his wife didn’t join him. He died when I was young. Single digits young. My memory of him is dim but I remember him being fun and peppy. He is probably the only extrovert in a family of intros. Then again…what do I know? 🙂 Yep, I just fill in the blanks.

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  18. I probably should have an interest in my “forefathers and mothers” but never have developed that. My parents were both very closed off individuals and never talked about their parents or grandparents. My father was raised by his grandparents and my mother just never got along with her Mom and stepdad. I think dysfunction reigned on both sides and that’s why nobody would discuss ancestry. It’s probably very interesting stuff but I find these days my priority is the present and while I’m curious about the past – I know it’s a whole lot of work – bless you for doing it….at least you know a lot about “how you got to where you are now”. Maybe I was just dropped off by a spaceship??? Enjoy your research. I’m sure if I’d had children I would have wanted to give them info about their ancestors and WOULD have dug that info up for them – it’s important!

    Hugs, Pam

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    • What’s that saying? Families are complicated! All of them. My family was never close to my grandmother’s “branch” and I’ve always wondered why. As I’m filling in the blanks, these people lived locally and I went to school with some of the kids. I’m sure there are secrets I’ll never know but that’s probably best. My mother’s side of the family was much easier to research. I didn’t have interest until I tested my DNA. It was just curiosity then it became a game of wits.

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    • He had sent me a batch to look over and there wasn’t anyone I recognized so I was not hopeful. The second to last in the second batch gave me gold. I was over the moon. I had no idea what my paternal grandmother looked like. She looked exactly like one of my aunts. Pencil wouldn’t be good either. After my mother died, my brother and I went through boxes of snapshots. There were a lot of people neither of us knew. We ended up tossing photos that had no relatives in them. Just a note on the back would have helped.

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  19. My maternal uncle sent me some old photos. But it was of a relative I’d never heard of. Maybe some day I’ll do your kind of research and fill in the branches sideways. Right now, I don’t have much interest, although some of the family stories are fascinating (and horrifying).

    And yes, there was information written on the back of the photos.

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  20. I would love to find something like this. I once came across a very old voice recording of a relative. He was an auctioneer. It is a strange feeling when relatives come to life. Where was the photo taken?

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    • It was taken at a studio not far from where I live. I’m sure they had a copy. They also had individual portraits that hung in my aunt’s house but I don’t know what happened to them. About 25 years ago, after she died, I tried to see if I could find them. She had no children so two of my cousins were her caretakers in her last years (dementia). They said the portraits were gone by the time they moved in. I always feared that someone sold it at a flea market because the frames were very old with the curved glass.

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