Genealogy Antiques: Finding Your 19th c. Antique Paper & Photography

by Debra Clifford | Mar 10, 2011

Was your Great Grandfather a shoemaker or carriage maker? Your Great Grandmother a seamstress? Did your family own a store, livery, bakery, or photography studio in the 19th century? You may not have considered searching auction sites for the printed advertising material or "ephemera" associated with your family businesses, as well as their early identified family photographs.

I will identify these early paper antiques, and offer an understanding of specific items seen at antique shows and online auction sites. The search for actual family identified treasures is often overlooked in genealogy research.

In general, paper of the 19th century had a high rag content, and is more durable than the paper of today. Some early deeds and documents of the 1800's have the thick feel of early fabric. The current acidic newsprint of today quickly yellows and disintegrates in time. A newspaper of the 1860's may be in much better condition than one from the 1960's, which is good news for us in the genealogy world.

The word "Ephemera" is defined as paper items that are "ephemeral" or fleeting in nature. Our ancestors never pondered future generations collecting their calling cards, handwritten letters, photos and diaries. Sadly, photographs were lost and displaced by the thousands, and now lay discarded in antique shops and flea markets. Is it possible a lost family album of yours may be listed online at an auction site? Having a good vocabulary of genealogy antiques offers a place to begin your searches of the web.


19th Century Surname Identified Paper, Photos & Ephemera

Advertising Trade Cards, 1870-90's: Printed by early stone lithography methods, these are generally small colorful advertising cards with Victorian scenes. They were meant to sell fabrics, toys, games, shoes, farm machinery, stoves, quack medicines, millinery, photographs and lawyer, doctor, optician and dentist services. Trade cards are an early successor to the business card of today.

Antique Advertising Letterheads & Billheads 1850-1900: American Victorian era printing and graphics are beautifully utilized here. They proudly boast the company, store, business, wares, agents, and key employee names. Billheads are similarly printed receipts for goods, with the buyer's info handwritten on fancy printed paper stock. Most were used in family run businesses and have classic American typography and graphics.

Deeds, Wills and Legal Documents 1700-1800's: Indentures, deeds, contracts, government forms, and naturalization papers are great surname resources. Most are handwritten on early high rag content paper, as mentioned above.

School Collectibles: Rewards of Merit, 1700-1900's: Education merits were given by teachers to reward good work. Most are identified with both the child and teacher's names, although most do not offer location. Early 19th c. merits are highly prized by collectors and are often hand colored.

Family Bibles, c. 1700-1900's: Many antique bibles have handwritten family records between the old and new testament. Generations of names, births, marriage and death dates may be handwritten there. Antique book sellers are a great resource, as well as Ebay and online rare/used book sites.

Postcards 1870-on: In 1906 at Coney Island, over 200,000 postcards were sent from the local post office in one day, a testament to their extreme popularity. Fancy printed postcards have handwritten addresses, as well as the obvious family names and stories. Real Photo postcards are highly collectible and began around 1900. "RPPC's" are popular in the collectible world, especially rural American town scenes. They are one of a kind and were not generally commercially produced.

Mourning or Funeral Cards 1860-1900: Sadly, Mourning was a constant condition in the lives of our our Victorian era ancestors. There are many symbols of remembrances, from post mortem photographs of the deceased, to memorial cards providing clues of age, death date, and cemetery information.

School Primers Books 1800-1900's: Many early primers have handwritten children's names, with a family of children possibly sharing one primer book.

Letters, Diaries, Journals, 1800-1900: Civil War letters are highly prized, and many early letters and diaries are still available. The antique Victorian lap desk was as prized a possession as our laptops of today, and daily letter writing was an important Victorian pastime.

Victorian Calling Cards 1840-1890's: "Calling" was a very important part of life in Victorian America, and the calling card was a sign of social standing. They measure about 2 x 3.5 inches, and provide a resource for family names, although most are not printed with a location.

Genealogy Books & Family Records 1800-1900's: To commemorate the impending turn of the century, Americans published extensive genealogy books and histories of early town settlers in the 1890's. Many are transcribed on google books, but the actual antique book may also be collected. In the mid 19th century, Courier & Ives printed thousands of blank family records to be recorded by family members. Many can still be found today, as well as intricate handwritten family records of all types, ages and sizes.


19th c. Photography, 1840-1900

Daguerreotypes, 1840-1860's: "Dags" are images on a polished copper plate with a silver mercury mirror image. They were encased in decorative hinged wooden cases, with a small piece of glass placed over the photo. They are the first photographs and most measure about 2.25 x 3.25 inches, although can be as large as 6.5 x 8.5 inches in size.

Ambrotypes 1850-60's: "Ambros" were developed on an early glass plate with a black painted reverse, which often chips away over time. They are also encased, and generally measure the same size as daguerreotypes. Ambros had a shorter life span in the photography world, and were quickly replaced by the new CDV paper photos of 1859-60.

Tintype, Ferrotype Photographs 1850-1930's: Tintypes were produced on a thin plate of iron. Unfortunately, many are not identified because of the inability to write on the surface. They were the least expensive and most commonly produced photos of the time period. Many were placed in thin fragile paper mats, with the majority of tintypes today found loose, having been removed from antique family albums.

CDV or Carte de Visite photographs 1860-80's: These are small albumen (egg white) photos developed on thin paper and mounted on a card stock. They measure 2.5 by 4 inches, and are direct descendants of the Victorian Calling Card. "Carte de Visite" translates to "Visiting Card." They were in heavy use in the Civil War, as they could be carried much easier than the earlier cased photos. Some have identified photographer's info printed on reverse. As popular as baseball cards, photographers also printed CDV photos of Civil War generals, writers, actors and politicians to meet the high demand.

Cabinet Card Photos, 1870-90's: These are larger portrait photos and are approximately 4.5 by 7 inches in size. Many have fancy printed Victorian photographer advertising "backmarks", which also aid in determining location. These photos could be placed in a cabinet and viewed from across the parlor, as opposed to the smaller CDV photo above.

Stereoview Photos 1860-1900: A Victorian era rage, a pair of identical photos were mounted on a card for viewing in a hand held wooden stereoscope. Small town photographers took photos of cemetery plots, homesteads, storefronts and local landmarks, providing us with excellent scenes of small town American life, and in 3D!

Dry Plate, Gelatin, or Dry Mount Photographs 1890's: Larger Studio portraits were developed at the end of the 19th century in different sizes. In 1888, George Eastman's Kodak camera was first introduced, allowing the public to take their own photographs. This opened the new era of photography as we know it.


Where to begin your search?

Ebay is a wonderful resource, with thousands of items listed daily. Take time to research Ebay's advanced search possibilities and refine your searches, looking at both title and description searches. You may also configure daily Ebay searches, receiving an email when an item of interest appears. This is wonderful with an uncommon surname, but in the case of my own "White" family surname, can prove difficult. There are millions of ebay items listed with the word "white."

Using the knowledge listed above, I have configured searches such as "white bible", "white family letter", "white advertising trade card", "white cdv", narrowing my search results greatly. Over time, I have refined my daily searches, which total about 50. How exciting it is to receive an email with a possible family item! Spend real time researching all your search possibilities on Ebay to enhance your chances of success.

Searching for small towns of ancestors can also provide wonderful material. I recently found an 1870's photo of an area of my ancestors, and can see life as they saw it. County searches are invaluable searches too, and can offer genealogy material such as maps and plats.

In addition, the web has many antique malls and stores such as Ruby Lane, TIAS, Go Antiques, Etsy with vintage material and so on. Even Goodwill has an auction site of donated material, and old family albums up for auction. Your material may have traveled long distances with migration, and could appear in any state or country. Take a day and set up wish lists at these sites. Search rare book dealers and set up relevant wish list notifications.

Lastly, Google news alerts for specific surnames and keywords is recommended, as it will keep you further informed of any new material that appears on the web. I wish you the best of luck, and may you find a wonderful family photo or item you never dreamed existed!


Sign up for a free trial account and begin tracing your family history today.

Start 7-Day Free Trial »