One of my obsessions is identifying old photos that are not marked with any known information. It's the mystery that compels me to doggedly research the various clues each image holds. But there could be a financial reason to understand what it is you have hidden in boxes and drawers around the house. Identifying an old image to a specific place increases the value significantly. Interesting old images are not worth much if you cannot place any context to what you are seeing. The resell market increases notably if you know the who, what, where and when.
So I'm going to outline how I try to determine a provenance for an item. As an example, here's an unmarked photo of an Independent 5 and 10 Cent Store.
The first step is to determine the timeframe. You can see people in the forefront and items for sale in the display windows. Let's take a look at the people first. Using Photoshop Elements, I can blow up various parts of the image for a closer look.
Women's clothing styles are what I look at first. There's an interesting contrast in these ladies' outfits. The old adage, "no white before Easter or after Labor Day" probably dates to 1894 when Labor Day became a holiday in the U.S. In pre-air conditioning days women would wear light-weight, white dresses during the summer; warmer, dark wools in the winter. Regardless, we see a huge difference in the attire of these women. One lady has gloves on and the other looks a little warm with her jacket draped over her arm. I wouldn't call the season, but the lady in black provides a great study of clothing styles.
Here's an example I found from an identified photo taken in 1906. The best way to familiarize yourself with clothing styles relative to timeframes is to look at examples posted with known dates. Quite a few women sewed their own clothing, so a good resource of everyday women's clothing styles is vintage pattern images posted on the internet. The Sears and Roebuck catalog is a virtual time capsule for anything vintage.
The guy's attire is much harder to pin down. Men didn't change their styles as dramatically as women. But they did do wacky, buttoning things with their vests during the Civil War timeframe, and sometimes would slide their hands into their vests in photos during that era. But the most tell-tale indicator with this guy is his hat. It's summer wear and made of straw in the Panama fashion.
Next I'll attempt to extract all the information I can from the photo. I use Photoshop to blow up various areas of the photo. Below is a slideshow of various clues I can find in the photo that might help identify the location:
The reflections in the window of the business across the street provides the best clue in these windows. Using photoshop I will flip horizontally (to account for the mirror image) and you have this:
In the first image we see the words Parker Co. The second image I can make out ILLINE which could be the word millinery, a person who makes and sells women's hats.
So let's review what we know:
Based on this information I need to find a database that has old city directories. Every community in this country published directories, very similar to the phone books that came later, which listed all the citizens and businesses within the community--including where a citizen worked. Addresses where often included in these entries. Ancestry.com has a database, but it does cost for a subscription and it is expensive. There are free places to find particular city directories like Google Books, Archive.org and many local and state libraries offer free online databases. Look around, but since we are really limited on location information, we'll use Ancestry.
Now, Ancestry requires an entire suite of tutorials in itself. It's not set up perfectly and is sometimes hard to use. A difficult thing to do there is to find a specific database and search within only that database. The specific one I'm using is: U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995. Within that database, I'm going to do a VERY specific search:
In the keyword field: [Quote]5 and 10 Cent[End Quote] (I try to limit bad results by limiting the search terms; I don't use store because that would bring up every other kind of store.)
There is a box to click next to the keyword field that limit searches exactly to that term--click that.
In the Residence Year field, put 1900 -- NOT exact. That way it will include five years before and after.
So....you get 640 results. It would be nice if adding "Parker Co" to the keyword field would further weed out results, but it did not work. So I noted all 640 results (it would also be nice to re-sort to exclude duplicates, but there again is another limitation to working this database). I searched each city on my list (it went fairly quickly), this time searching the term "Parker Co" instead of "5 and 10 Cent" and narrowed this list down to four possibilities:
So........the mystery photo was taken at:
The Independent 5 and 10 Cent Store opened in Davenport in February, 1906. It was located at 115-117 W. 2nd Street, the corner of Brady and W. 2nd. The Scott County Iowa GENweb site had this to say about it:
In 1911 Martin L. Parker owned the Topp-Parker Co., which was then changed to M.L. Parker--The Store for Men. It was located at the corner of Brady and W. 2nd Street. That building remains, however the building the 5 and 10 was located in is no longer there.
Frequently I will repeat the Google searches using different phrases, different combinations of search terms; then I look at all results, images only, and Google Books. When I find new information, I redo the Google search including those new clues. Here's what I found after I determined M.L. Parker had a men's store in Davenport:
Online antique and vintage sales will turn up all kinds of advertising. As in this case, it helped me determine Mr. Parker actually had a store there. His name remains.
What you are basically doing here is building a provenance. Anyone who watches Antiques Road Show hears that term frequently. This image has increased in value over what I originally purchased it because I was able to determine location.
I plan to do more tutorials of successful finds like this. There's tons of hidden treasures everywhere.