Follow these tips to identify old cars in photographs from your family albums. You can often identify the make and model of the automobile; decipher and date the license plates, and even discover additional documents relating to the earliest drivers on your family tree.
Image courtesy of Jennifer McCraw
A listener’s mystery photo question
Many of us have mystery photos in our family archives. Jennifer sent me a creative question about identifying hers:
“Have you ever come across any information on searching old license plate tag numbers to find an identity of the registrant? I have old photos that, according to my aunt, are the family of my grandmother’s boyfriend, Max, before [she married] my grandfather. The photos are amazing. Very ‘Great Gatsby-esque.’ Amazing clothes and car, right?! One photo has a smiling man standing in front of an old car with a portion of the license plate showing. I do not know the identity of this man or children. I’m thinking start with searches for plates beginning with 109 in the years before my grandmother was married in the state of Indiana, where she and Max lived.”I didn’t know if I had a ‘lead’ in that or not. I may be pulling at strings. I’d love your advice.”
What a great idea! I haven’t tried Jennifer’s exact approach to researching license plates as a way of identifying owners. But I have a similar story about researching an old car in my own family photo. My story, below, may help Jennifer and anyone else wanting to identify old cars in photographs. Keep reading for tips on researching the make and model of a car; deciphering the license plate to help date the photo and even on finding early drivers’ records. Owning a car was (and still is) a source of pride and excitement for many families, so it’s really worth taking a closer look at their cars in old pictures.
An old car photo in my own family
Here’s a photograph I love of my grandmother Alfreda as a teenager, beaming as she poses beside the newly purchased family automobile. In her diary, she divulges her excitement for the surprise she came home to after church:
Oct. 21, 1929 Sunday. “Went to Sunday school and when I got back there was our new car waiting for me. Willy’s Knight. I drove it all around, went and gave Evelyn a ride. Made Mama mad.”
This diary entry piques my interest. What year was this? Where did the car come from? What’s a “Willy’s Knight?” And if Mama got mad, who gave Alfreda the keys? I suspect Alfreda may have been a bit of a Daddy’s girl, but alas, this photo may not be able to reveal that family dynamic. However, the photo does contain important clues that has helped me answer at least a few of these questions.
1. Identify old cars in photographs
Before you start trying to identify an old vehicle in a family photo, it will help to know whether it’s categorized as a veteran, vintage, or classic car. What’s the difference? According to ItStillRuns.com:
“Veteran cars were manufactured before 1903, vintage cars were made between 1903 and 1933, and classic cars are considered to be vehicles manufactured from 1933 until fifteen years ago.”
I already knew from Grandma’s diary that the car in the above picture was a Willys Knight. But I wondered if I could nail down the make and model. I ran a few Google searches and found some fantastic websites.
Paul Young’s Willys Overland Knight Registry website had just what I was looking for. The site features dozens of photographs of all the different makes and models of Willys Knight automobiles in chronological order. So I scrolled down to the late 20’s and compared each photo to the photo of my great grandfather’s car. Bingo! The 1928 Willys Knight 70A Cabriolet Coupe America matched the car to a T. Everything from the convertible roof, the headlights, bumper, and side view mirrors all matched up.
From there I clicked on the Willys Knight History link, which led to not only a written history of Willys Knight but a chart of Willys Knight Specifications. A quick scroll down led me to the specs for Grandpas 1928 70A series car. I learned that great-grandpa’s car was introduced in August of 1927 for the starter price of $1,295. (Here’s a free online inflation calculator. Try plugging in 1927 and $1,295 to find out what the car would cost in today’s money.)
I also learned that the car was a 6-cylinder, as well as specs on the horsepower, the wheelbase, and even the range of serial numbers that the car would fall within. This website was jammed packed with everything you could ever want to know about the Willys Knight car. (If you’re interested in chatting with others about Willys Knight cars, you could also visit this site’s Facebook page.)
Family Photo Detective by Maureen Taylor is your ultimate guide to identifying old objects in pictures to help you learn more about your family history.
In Family Tree Magazine a few years ago, I read an article called “Motor Trends,” written by my friend Maureen Taylor. She said that said that by 1918 all states had adopted license and registration laws. It recommended that you look for a license plate in old photos. License plates often have a year on them and possibly even the owner’s initials.
Unfortunately, the license plate in my photo is so dark I couldn’t read it at all. My guess is that this is probably the situation in many cases when someone has a photo of a car. So here’s what I did to solve this problem:
I opened a digital copy of the photo with the basic photograph editing software that came with my computer.
I cropped the photo to just show the license plate and then zoomed in to make the image as large as possible.
I increased the brightness of the photo and adjusted the contrast. Often when you play with these two features, adjusting first one and then the other, you’ll get pretty good results.
The final touch was to apply an auto-sharpening tool which defined the image even more.
As you can see in the “before and after” images below, what once was a blob of darkness now read: 2L 67 24.
There was something printed under the license number, but I still couldn’t quite read it. It looked like CAL 29, which would make sense because they lived in California and the year they bought it was 1929. But I couldn’t be certain. So I ran a Google search for “old California license plates.”
Several websites proved interesting for learning more about old California license plates:
For example, I learned that California has required license plates since 1905. In that year, there were over 17,000 registered vehicles in the state. I found a replica 1929 license plate that read “CAL 29” across the bottom of it. Just what I’d thought mine said! And thanks to WorldLicensePlates.com, I was even able to determine that the license plate in my black and white photo had a black background and orange lettering.
What about the license plate in Jennifer’s photo? Only a partial plate is visible, but it’s enough to compare to images of Indiana license plates at WorldLicensePlates.com:
identifying old license plates
Jennifer can take several important clues from this comparison:
It quite a dark plate with very light numbers. Even though it’s a black and white photo, based on the contrast, I think the license probably doesn’t have orange in it. (Eliminate 1929, 1930, 1931, 1935)
There is no dash between the first 3 numbers and the next set (eliminate 1929)
The style is more of a Sans Serif font (we can eliminate 1929, and 1930)
Indiana appears at the bottom (eliminate 1931, 1933, 1935)
From these clues, I’d say that the 1932 plate is certainly the closest match.
3. Find records relating to early drivers
California state statutes of 1901 authorized cities and counties to license bicycles, tricycles, automobile carriages, carts, and similar wheeled vehicles. Owners paid a $2 fee and were issued a circular tag. Later, tags were either octagonal or had scalloped edges.
Motor Vehicles Records
So this got me curious. Could I access records associated with my great-grandfather’s license plate and automobile registration? Typically states move records of this age to their state archives. I started by Googling California State Archives. The Online Archives of Californiahas a searchable database that includes the state archive holdings. The online catalog has motor vehicle records (61 volumes!) for the first several years they were issued (1905-1913).
A description in the online finding aid stated: “Motor Vehicle Records, 1913 transferred those functions from the Secretary of State’s office to the Department of Engineering.” There are actually two clues here: 1) the phrase “motor vehicle records” is what I likely want to use when searching for records, and 2) the office that likely kept the records for my time period (1929) was the Department of Engineering. A followup search using these search terms got 13 results. Unfortunately, none of these records included 1929, and an email inquiry to the State Archives wasn’t fruitful, either. But this showed me that driver registration records may exist.
So may other driving-related records. I did several searches in ArchiveGrid, an enormous online catalog for archival collections. No California motor vehicle registrations popped up. But I did find a collection of 1928 maps and guidebooks for the Automobile Club of Southern California, held at the Brigham Young University library in Provo, Utah. There was also a collection of thousands of images collected by the Automobile Club of Southern California (mostly in the 1920s and 1930s) at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA.
If I really wanted to learn more about the early-1900s “sport” of automobile driving in California, I could spend some time with record collections such as those.
Does this discovery change the course of my family history? No. But it was a heck of a lot of fun to learn what I did about the oldest automobile I’m aware of my family owning. It’s exciting to discover these little gems: they connect me to the past in such an interesting way. Even better, it gave me something to share with my husband, Bill, who loves old cars!
Listen to the free Genealogy Gems Podcast in favorite podcast app.
Hear inspiring stories and learn hands-on, try-it-now strategies for discovering your family history in my free Genealogy Gems Podcast. There are more than 200 episodes to get your genealogy motor running, with a new episode published each month. You’ll find the latest news, try-it-now online search strategies and inspiring stories to keep you on the road to genealogy research success.
Creating and maintaining a genealogy blog is a fun and rewarding way to share your family history. Blogging is also effective in finding cousin connections! If you are worried your blog isn’t pulling in the cousins you expected, elevate your ranking in search results by implementing these 3 ways to improve your genealogy blog.
I recently received this exciting email from Ruth:
“Thank you, thank you, thank you! Several months ago, I attended one of your all-day seminars in Bossier City, Louisiana and I must thank you for motivating me!
I’ve been researching my family tree off and on for 25 years or so, and at times it has taken a back burner to whatever was going on in my life; only to be dusted off when I would get an inquiry or perhaps when someone in the family passed away. In the last 3 years, I have been attending these local seminars with a distant cousin. They were fun and I learned a few things, but none had generated the enthusiasm that I have at the moment!
The knowledge that you share and the easy manner in which you deliver your presentations are so down-to-earth and it inspires me to learn more. I left your seminar with a Premium Membership package and I have been listening to your podcast ever since.
You also encourage your readers to blog about their genealogy. I took your advice and I’ve done just that. Please take a look at my blog – any suggestions you might have would be welcomed. The title is My Family Tree: Hobby or Addiction? and I have dedicated it to my father who passed away in 2005! Here is the link: http://myfamilytreehobbyoraddiction.blogspot.com/
Thank you again for all you do that encourages us and for the new tools that you share with your listeners to help their journey along the way!
Ruth Craig Estess”
Ruth, thank you and congratulations!
I love hearing how you have put it into action what you learned at the seminar.
Tips for Improving Your Genealogy Blog
Ruth is doing a terrific job including family information on her genealogy blog that others might be Googling. That means they are very likely to find her. But there’s more that can be done. Here are 3 additional tips for Ruth and anyone who wants to get more traction with their genealogy blog:
“1. Add more images. Google looks postively upon websites that have images. It considers the website to be more of an authority on the subject covered in the blog. Images improve Search Engine Optimization (SEO.) In layman’s terms, SEO refers the ways in which you have made your blog easy to use, and easy for Google to understand what it is about. The better Google understands the subject, the better chance it has of delivering your blog as a result when people search on things you write about (like your family tree!) It’s important that your image files have names that accurately reflect what they and your blog post are about. Therefore, it’s a solid strategy to include relevant genealogical information such as names, places and dates in the image titles. If you don’t happen to personally have photos about the subject of your blog post, include images of documents or other related items.
2. Include a Call to Action. At the end of each post, invite your readers to comment and contact you if they are researching the same family. It’s amazing what a little invitation will do to prompt interaction. If you skip this step, your readers may just “lurk”, or in other words, quietly read and then go on to the next website. That’s a missed opportunity for connection and collaboration. Even though a reader may be researching the family you are writing about, they may not think to reach out to you or comment unless you prompt them to do so.
3. Make use of blog categories. Categories and Labels help organize you blog content. Create a category for each surname you discuss on your blog. The category can appear in the side column on your blog. That makes it easy for readers to click a surname they are interested in and jump directly to your posts that discuss that name.”
Categories and Labels are great for SEO too. Google loves well-organized websites because they are easier to understand and deliver in search results.
More Gems on Creating Your Own Genealogy Blog
Ruth wrote to tell me she has already started putting these ideas into practice. She’s on her way to rising in the search results and hearing from distant cousins. How exciting! Click below to continue reading about rewarding and effective family history blogging.
Welcome to this step-by-step series for beginning genealogists—and more experienced ones who want to brush up or learn something new. I first ran this series in 2008-09. So many people have asked about it, I’m bringing it back in weekly segments.
Episode 45: Genealogy Blogs Started by YOU!
In recent episodes of this podcast, we’ve been talking about how and why to create a genealogy blog. In this episode I’m going to share some of the family history blogs that YOU—the listeners—have created. I’m hoping you’ll be inspired to blog by what others are doing, or that you’ll take note of any blogs that can help you or perhaps are relevant to your own family history. Being a community is what gives genealogists strengths and inspiration. Get your notepads out and get ready to jot down these terrific blogs!
Below are the blogs mentioned in the show. Most of them stayed active and have very recent posts! What a great thing to see the success they’ve had since getting started. There’s only one blog we didn’t find when we republished this episode: Teri’s blog on her Pomeranian ancestors.
Writing up your brick walls and family groups is a great way to summarize in your mind where you are in your research, which often generates new leads.
Try posting more articles to generate content for the search engines.
Put your blog URL on message boards relating to your surname.
Have you lost track of someone else’s blog that is no longer at its old URL? Search for the blog, the blogger’s name and other keywords (surnames, topics, places) to discover whether it’s migrated to a new URL. That’s how we located some of the blogs above when we republished this episode.
Starting a Genealogy Blog Q&A
(Please note that features and layouts of blogging platforms change over time. These answers were current as of the original podcast publication date. If things have changed, use clues from the answers to find the current answer!)
Question: I set up my blog in Blogger. There does not appear to be any spell checker. How is your blog set up in terms of writing and editing?
Answer: Yes, Blogger has a spell check. When you’re in Compose mode, there are buttons across the top of the Compose box. You’ll see Font, Bold, etc. There you will find an icon “ABC.” That’s the spell-checker. Click it and it will run while you’re in Compose mode.
Question: How do I insert the name of the site as a link without typing out the name of the URL? The URL is somehow encoded in the name of the link.
Answer: When links are embedded in the text, this is called a hyperlink. Highlight the text or the name you want to send people to. Then in the Compose box, you’ll see a little button that looks like the link of a chain. Just click that and you’ll get a window in which you can type in the complete web address where you’re sending people (I always go to the webpage I want to link to, copy the full URL and then paste it.)
Question: I set my blog as available to all, but a search even for the exact name of the blog doesn’t bring it up in my search engine. Why is that?
Answer: You can do a couple of things in your blog to help search engines notice you, but the reality is that perhaps Google hasn’t yet “crawled” your blog. Google combs and indexes website every day, and perhaps they haven’t gotten to you yet. You can go to Google.com/addurl, and there you can send your blog address to Google and that will get it indexed much more quickly. Get lots of new posts up with specific words (surnames, locations and other terms about your family).
ALL of the microfilmed records that have been rented in the past 5 years have now been digitized, over 1.5 million films.
From now on, if you need a film that hasn’t been digitized yet, you can call FamilySearch Support toll-free (866-406-1830) and request it for the priority digitization list.
They continue to digitally scan about 1000 films per day. (That sounds like a lot, but at this rate it will still take them until 2020 to be done.)
New digital images are being put in the FamilySearch Catalog as soon as possible. This is not the main digital record search area! It will take collections a while to appear here. Instead, under the Search tab, select Catalog, and then search by place and record type or other categories. This is a master catalog of all the Family History Library’s collections, online and offline, and when you click on an item’s individual description, you’ll be able to see a link to its digitized version if it’s available.
If you or anyone else had any films on loan in family history centers and FamilySearch affiliate libraries when the lending program ended, those automatically have extended loan status, which means they can stay there indefinitely unless the management decides to send them back.
If all else fails, you can still go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, UT and order microfilmed records to view, or you can hire someone to do it for you.
FamilySearch Affiliate libraries now have access to nearly all of the restricted image collections as family history centers.
Click here to read or listen to Lisa’s special interview with Diane Loosle of FamilySearch. It goes into much more detail about accessing records on the site, at affiliate libraries and more.
Click here to read the August 30, 2017 update from FamilySearch.
To save 30% off a Care.com Premium membership, visit care.com/gemswhen you subscribe.
I had so much fun opening the box. They even sent me an apron!
Visit hellofresh.com and use promo code gems30 to save $30 off your first week of deliveries.
NEWS: FREE GENEALOGY WEBINAR FROM NYC
Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems presents:
Reveal Your Unique Story through DNA & Family History sponsored by Animoto
Saturday, September 23, 2017 11:00 AM EST
Turn DNA results into your family history
Turn your family history into a compelling story
Turn your compelling story into a video!
Learn from Lisa Louise Cooke, Diahan Southard and Animoto’s Beth Forester:
Your DNA testing options (there are more than you think), and possible outcomes
The best free resources for going beyond DNA, back several generations in your family (quickly!)
Creative ideas for filling in the story gaps
How to expand your story in ways you never expected by finding DNA connections
Share the story you’ve uncovered with the world through riveting video
Lisa chat with Hannah about Hurricane Harvey
Keep your family history research, photos, tree software files, videos and all other computer files safely backed up with Backblaze, the official cloud-based computer backup system for Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems. Learn more athttp://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.
MAILBOX: KRISTIN’S SUCCESS STORY
“Among the handful of mystery photographs of my grandmother as a child and the strangers who sat beside her, was a brief article from a newspaper. It was a lesson in manners, titled ‘Silence is Golden’ and it was written by Merton Markert, a student of the Modern Classics. A photo of a young woman with a disheveled Gibson hairdo was attached.”
Try Ebay! Lisa found a listing for a commencement program from 1902, old post cards of the school, and other yearbooks from Lancaster High School. Sign up for a free Ebay account, run a search, and then click to Follow the search. You will then be alerted to future auctions that match your criteria.
Click here for tips on finding yearbooks and other school records.
MARY M. Tedesco is a professional genealogist, speaker, and author. She is a host and genealogist on PBS’ Genealogy Roadshow” and Founder of ORIGINS ITALY. Mary speaks fluent Italian and travels often to Italy to conduct client genealogical research and visit family. She is co-author of Tracing Your Italian Ancestors.
Click hereto watch a free interview with Mary Tedesco with more tips on doing Italian genealogy research.
Michael Strauss, AG is the principal owner of Genealogy Research Network and an Accredited Genealogist since 1995. He is a native of Pennsylvania and a resident of Utah and has been an avid genealogist for more than 30 years. Strauss holds a BA in History and is a United States Coast Guard veteran.
BONUS handout to celebrate this new segment: Click here for a 4-page handout on U.S. draft registration records by Michael L. Strauss.
It’s a common Pennsylvania genealogy brick wall: “My ancestors are from PA—but I don’t know where!” Pennsylvania expert Jim Beidler has strategies that may help narrow down the needle-in-a-haystack problem of identifying your ancestor’s home county. Here, we also add...