Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 212

The Genealogy Gems Podcast
Episode #212
with Lisa Louise Cooke

In this episode, Lisa Louise Cooke speaks with Contributing Editor Sunny Morton about turning our fleeting scraps of recollections into meaningful memories.Also:

Genealogist Margaret Linford tells us how she got started in family history. Like many of our best stories, it’s not just about her, but someone who inspired her.

2017 could be called “the year of DNA.” Diahan Southard looks back with a special DNA news digest.

Finding missing ancestors: tips and success stories from Genealogy Gems fans

NEWS: WIKITREE HONOR CODE

WikiTree.com

WikiTree Press Release on 100,000 signatures

Learn more about using individual v. global/community family trees on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, Findmypast.com and MyHeritage.com in Sunny Morton’s quick reference guide, Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites.

NEWS: FAMICITY ADDS GEDCOM UPLOAD

Famicity.com

NEWS: DNA YEAR IN REVIEW WITH DIAHAN SOUTHARD

As evidence of its now proven usefulness in genealogy research, the genetic genealogy industry is growing at a fast pace. Ancestry.com has amassed the largest database, now boasting over 6 million people tested, and is growing at breakneck speeds, having doubled the size of its database in 2017. As the databases grow larger and our genealogy finds become more frequent, we can’t ignore that this kind of data, the correlated genetic and genealogical data, amassed by these companies, has great value.

In November, MyHeritage announced an effort by their scientific team to “study the relationship between genetics and behavior, personal characteristics, and culture.” These studies are not new, as 23andMe is in open hot pursuit of the connections between genetics and our health, and always has been.

All of our genetic genealogy companies are involved in research on one level or another and every person who swabs or spits has the opportunity to participate in other research projects (click here to read up on the consent policies at each company). At the time of testing, you have the option to opt in or out of this research, and the ability to alter that decision at any time after you test, by accessing your settings. According to an article in Fast Company, it seems we as a community are very interested in helping with research: 23andMe reports an over 80% opt-in-to-research rate among their customers. And I’ve got some breaking news for you: Family Tree DNA just started a consumer awareness campaign to reinforce the message that they will never sell your genetic data. That’s another important topic worth talking about in a future episode, so stay tuned!

All our genetic genealogy companies realize that you might want to do more with your data than just look for your ancestors. This year Family Tree DNA has partnered with Vitagene in an effort to provide insight into your health via your genetic genealogy test results. Of course 23andMe is the leader in health testing when we look at our top genetic genealogy companies. This year 23andMe finally succeeded ipassing several of their health tests through the FDA, a huge leap forward in their efforts to provide health testing directly to consumers.

While health testing has certainly seen an explosion of interest this year, it is not the only way that our companies are using the data they have amassed. AncestryDNA took the DNA and pedigree charts of two million customers who consented to research and, using some really fancy science, were able to provide amazing insight into our recent ancestral past with the creation of their genetic communities. These genetic communities enhance our understanding of our heritage by showing us where our ancestors may have been between 1750 and 1850, the genealogical “sweet spot” that most of us are trying to fill in.

Living DNA, a relative newcomer to the genetic genealogy arena, announced in October of 2017 their intention to use their database to help create a One World Family Tree. To do so, they are collecting DNA samples from all over the world, specifically those who four grandparents lived in close proximity to each other. Along with this announcement, Living DNA is allowing individuals who have results from other companies and want to help with this project, to transfer into their database.

So it seems that with growing databases come growing options, whether to opt-in to research, to pursue health information from your DNA test results, or to help build global databases for health or genealogy purposes. Recognizing the growing appeal to non-genealogists as well, AncestryDNA added to their list of options the ability to opt-out of the match page, and there are rumors that Living DNA will soon be adding the option to opt-in to matching (they do not currently have a cousin-matching feature as part of their offering). It can be tricky to keep up with all that goes on, but be sure we at Genealogy Gems are doing our best to keep you up-to-date with any news that might help you make better decisions about your genealogy, and ultimately better equipped to find your ancestors.

GENEALOGY GEMS NEWS

Premium Podcast Episode 154 (publishing later this month)

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BONUS CONTENT in the Genealogy Gems App

If you’re listening through the Genealogy Gems app, your bonus content for this episode a reading of an excerpt of the Book of Christmas: Descriptive of the Customs, Ceremonies, Traditions by Thomas Kibble Hervey (The chapter Signs of the Season) published in 1845 ? available for free in Google Books.

The Genealogy Gems app is FREE in Google Play and is only $2.99 for Windows, iPhone and iPad users

MAILBOX

Genealogy Gems blog post on finding missing ancestors

Learn more about using Google Books and Google Patents in Lisa Louise Cooke’s book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox

 

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 at https://www.backblaze.com/Lisa.

 

Lovepop Cards

Unlock special pricing for 5 or more cards AND get free shipping on any order by going to https://www.lovepopcards.com/gems

 

GEM: MARGARET LINFORD’S GENEALOGICAL ORIGINS

Genealogy Gems Podcast episode #208

Click here to read Margaret’s memories and see her pictures of Grandma Overbay

Start creating fabulous, irresistible videos about your family history with Animoto.com. You don’t need special video-editing skills: just drag and drop your photos and videos, pick a layout and music, add a little text and voila! You’ve got an awesome video! Try this out for yourself at Animoto.com.

 

INTERVIEW: TURN MEMORY FRAGMENTS INTO MEANINGFUL STORIES

Sunny Morton is a Contributing Editor at Genealogy Gems and presenter of the new Premium Video, “Share Your Own Life Stories More Meaningfully” (click here to watch a quick preview). She is also author of Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy (use coupon code GEMS17 for an extra 10% off by December 31, 2017).

Strategies for turning memory fragments into meaningful stories (learn more about all of these in the Premium Video, “Share Your Own Life Stories More Meaningfully”):

Gather together even the smallest fragments of your memories together by writing them down.

Think about what missing details you could research by finding pictures, books, chronologies, maps and other resources (both online and offline).

Look for common patterns or recurring themes in groups of memory fragments. (For example, Sunny shared memories of swimming in this episode.) What kind of story do these memories tell over time about your personality, circumstances, relationships or other aspects of your life?

 

PRODUCTION CREDITS

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer

Sunny Morton, Editor

Diahan Southard, Your DNA Guide, Content Contributor

Hannah Fullerton, Audio Editor

Lacey Cooke, Service Manager

Disclosure: This page contains affiliate links and Genealogy Gems will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on these links (at no additional cost to you). Thank you for supporting this free podcast and blog!

 

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Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 223

Genealogy Gems Podcast Episode 223

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Bit Players in Someone Else’s Show

If you happen to catch an old episode of the TV Series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you may be surprised to spot Ben Affleck dribbling down a basketball court in the not so highly acclaimed role of Basketball Player #10.

And you might need to set your popcorn down and rewind while watching Monk from 2006 on Amazon Prime Videos to confirm that indeed you did just see Jennifer Laurence from Hunger Games fame pull off a lion mascot head after a high school game in the infamous role of “Mascot Girl”.

Or how about funny man Jack Black of School of Rock fame in the walk-on part of “Taxi Driver” on the iconic 1980s comedy The Golden Girls.

Yep, at some point we are ALL bit players in somebody else’s show. And that is even more true with old home movies

Your friends, your neighbors and even perfect strangers have likely at some point captured you or someone in your family in one of their own old home movies. And the same is true for your ancestors. As long as film has been around, the chances of someone in your family tree appearing in someone else’s videos at some point in time is actually quite high.

And think about it, when film – or moving pictures – came into being right around 1895, it had the capability of capturing someone born as early as even 1800. That’s a lot of potential generations of your family!

David Haas MD knows this better than most folks. he has experienced first-hand that any one of us may find ourselves, quite by surprise, as the keeper or even the Archivist of film footage that connects to potentially hundreds if not thousands of other people and families. And there’s a very good possibility that yours is one of those families.

Your family could very well indeed be one that has been a bit player in somebody else’s film, and you didn’t even know it. But that’s OK, because thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to find the celluloid that once lay sleeping in a stranger’s attic.

The best place to start our story is how I came to know David Haas.

I’ve been encouraging you through this podcast, my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (which includes an entire chapter devoted to YouTube) and my in-person lectures to turn to online video, and specifically YouTube in search of your family. Long time listener Debby Warner Anderson contacted me to let me know that she had followed my suggestion with dramatic results. She wrote:

“I had interviewed my Dad to get details of his memories and found the 2 YouTube links about the 1945 Macy’s Parade that my father went to and the video about W.C. Handy who my Dad remembered seeing. My Dad was so tickled to see the YouTube videos to go with his memories. It gave my family members and my son a real glimpse in to my Dad’s memories.  Thank-you for the suggestions!”

I clicked the link she shared to an article that she wrote on her blog called Debby’s Family Genealogy. The article called Recording a Family Thanksgiving Tradition described the find in detail and included the video, called Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – 1945.

David Haas MD had uploaded this video to YouTube, and it’s one of hundreds on his YouTube channel under his name David Haas MD. You need only click it and watch just a few moments to be mesmerized. The video, comprised of old home movies, is striking in its color quality, and you instantly feel yourself falling back in time, pulled there even further by the haunting music that serves as the backdrop to this silent film.

I was so taken by how this video, sitting out there for free on YouTube, fit so beautifully into Debby’s family history, helping to bring it just a bit more into focus.

I sat and watched the Macy’s Day parade video all the way through. It was so clear that it was carefully and thoughtfully restored and shared, and that it must have come from someone else’s personal home movie collection.

Clicking on the name of the person who uploaded any video on YouTube will bring you to their YouTube channel. Anyone can have a free YouTube channel by simply signing in with a free Google account and uploading a video. It’s called Creators Studio, and these days it sports an impressive collection of tools that anyone can use to create, enhance and share videos.

Many channels will have only one or maybe a handful of videos. This is not the case with David’s channel. It’s difficult to scroll down the page far enough to get to the end of the impressive video list. Where did all these home movies come from? What motivated him to invest the time to make the available on YouTube?

Literally hundreds of people appear in the 4 ½ minute Macy’s Parade (1945) film: the folks in the parade, the people lining the streets and even the people watching from the fire escapes of the surrounding buildings.

The film was created by William G Whitman Sr. A veteran of World War I, he made his way after the war as a bit of a jack of all trades, and the path eventually got the ball rolling that led to the home movies.

William G Whitman, Sr. was David’s grandfather on his mother’s side. William, his wife Catherine and their 10 year old daughter Catherine who is David’s mother can be found in the 1930 census living in Brooklyn. At that time William says he’s a manager of a store. By 1940 he has followed his passion and is proudly declaring he works in Photographic retail as a photo finisher.

But it was as far back as the year that the Great Depression hit, 1929 that William began capturing his growing family on film. In those early movies David’s mother, Catherine, was just 9 years old. David’s collection of films span from this time period all the way through the mid-1970s.

In the earliest of the home movies which you can see on David’s YouTube channel, William Whitman did what most of us do, take home movies of the people and things we love the most. In those films, David’s mom clearly relishes being in front of her father’s camera. She worshipped her father, who was a bit of a big kid himself.

“My mother always remembered things in a sunny way…it’s very much like the pictures we see on the internet, where people tend to post the most rosy possible pictures.  Often times, I think it’s the same with the home movies. You really have to dig deeper to kind of get the whole story.”

This phenomenon of capturing and sharing the rosiest version of ourselves is nothing new. And as genealogists, we are in the perfect position to leverage old movies like these and dig deeper for the rest of the story. Story is a running theme through William Whitman’s films. You only need to watch a few to see what a keen eye for composition and telling stories that he had. He developed his skill while shooting weddings professionally.

William got his whole family into the act of shooting, developing and editing his films. After his daughter Catherine (image below) married David’s father, he too joined in. William passed his skills and knowledge onto his son-in-law. He soon started shooting film of his own further adding to the collection of home movies.

Catherine Anna Haas
 

Lawrence W. Haas

As with so many genealogical tales, great treasure troves like these films are often found with three part deep digging and one part luck. In David’s case, the path to the treasure starts with the family’s refrigerator. His father used to project the movies onto the white kitchen refrigerator. Many years later, after his parents passed away, he found his father’s movies. But it wasn’t until his Aunt Markie mentioned that there were much older 16mm movies in existence dating back to the 1920s that the rest of the collection was discovered in the basement. David set to work getting them digitized.

David not only discovered that these movies were a priceless find for his own family, he soon realized that they held a vast amount of treasure for many other families in a wide variety of locations. “It really was about the people…they needed to be shared!” He felt a moral obligation to do so, and it soon turned into an obsession.

The Gold Waiting to be Found

And that’s the gold here! If we are all bit players in everybody else’s show, and this show was happening in so many different locations, then there are a lot of bit players out there waiting to be found by their families too, right there in David’s films. While the films of course covered Brooklyn where David’s family lived, they branch out to Queens NY, Ventner NJ, and as far away as San Francisco.

The genealogical value in old home movies is immense. If as researchers we can occasionally shift our focus from ancestors’ names to locations, we could very possibly hit pay dirt and find old films online that include our family.

It was in the town of Suffern, NY that David’s father shot quite a bit of footage, but there’s plenty to be had in many different locations. Once he posted them on YouTube the response was swift.

“Our Suffern – A Remembrance Through Home Movies”.

(This compilation of footage was created to commemorate the 40th Reunion of the Suffern High School Class of 1975. It is 41 minutes in length and premiered on October 3, 2015 at the historic Lafayette Theatre in downtown Suffern, NY.)

The color video Haas family, Mickey Mantle’s 500th Home Run, Yankee Stadium 1967 on David’s YouTube channel garnered dozens of comments from grateful viewers.

His father filmed elements of the game that the news didn’t which viewers appreciated. And some had been at that very game.

We’re Not Getting Any Younger

David stresses that timeliness is important when it comes to sharing old home movies like these. “People aren’t getting any younger” he says, and “Others may have insights you may miss.”

One connection made through sharing the movies on YouTube, that just barely missed making a personal connection, revolved around David’s mother’s younger sister, his aunt Margaret Whitman. She lived in Brooklyn in the 1930-1940s, and there are movies of “Markie” with her friends. One film from the 1930s included her good friend Charlie Russell. (Watch below starting at about the 30 second mark.) A few years ago, David received a message from a Charlie after he saw one of the videos! Sadly, he made the connection literally a week after Markie passed away at the age of 89. “If I could have made this connection 6 months earlier it would have been so wonderful for both of them. By then all their other friends had passed away.”

Another viewer who was touched by the films was a woman who saw herself walking around the Suffern swimming pool with her mother. It was priceless to her since her parents later died in an airplane crash and she had few photos of them. That was one of many stories.

“There was a little league game that my father filmed in Suffern, and there was a young boy who struck out, and as he was walking off and one of the coaches kind of patted him on the butt, sort of saying “good try, good job”, and then the game was over and they were all kind of hugging each other because they won the game. And this young boy ended up seeing the film now, I guess 50 years later. His father had passed away not long after that little league game, and here he was seeing his father who was his coach, encouraging him after he struck out. And again, he said he couldn’t speak for hours. It was just amazing.”

Another woman even found her parents in one of the videos on Coney Island where they ran a pony ride with her grandfather!

David’s willingness to share his family’s treasure trove of home movies put him in a unique and unexpected position to touch many people’s lives in truly meaningful ways. The only difference between him and many others who have even just a few spools of film is that he took action to share them. And along the way, he learned some important lessons about what makes film so distinct in its value. It’s those unique characteristic that told him more about his own family. “What I’ve learned is that photographs are powerful, but there’s nothing like moving images”.

David’s father had captured the moments of other people’s lives while filming his own. David didn’t use to be interested in genealogy. His father, however, was obsessed with it. But now, David finds that he is grateful to be able to pull the genealogy back out and reconstruct who the people are in the movies.

It’s a word so often associated with genealogy – obsessed. David’s father became obsessed with it and now David has become obsessed with processing and making available his cache of his father’s and grandfather’s home movies. This has in turn gloriously ensnared him in the world of genealogy.

David hopes by sharing his story of how these videos have impacted and continue to impact the lives of strangers from around the world, it will inspire all of us who have a few reels of old family movies to make it a priority to get them digitized and make them available. Our families and other unknown families are counting on us.

“One thing that I’m really passionate about is that people  who have home movies, if they can, they should really do their best to get them digitized” David continues, “Having gone through the experience, and it’s really been transformative, I feel very passionate about getting my wife’s movies, her family’s movies or her father when he was arrived, getting these converted and sharing these with my wife’s family. So that they can really forever see these movies and share them with their children, so that they can be passed down for generations.”

The Process: Digitize, Enhance and Share

We’ve all seen the commercial where they peer into the camera and aske “what’s in your wallet”. Our question today is “what’s in your closet”. I’ve looked through my closets and I have several home movies my grandmother shot on 8mm film. I also have a box full of VHS tapes from back when Bill and I got our first video camera right after we got married in the 1980s.

The process for digitizing and sharing your home movies can appear daunting at first glance. That’s why I asked David Haas MD to share some specifics about his project so that you can learn what you need to consider and some tips from somebody who’s already been through this in a big way.

Although David’s collection of film runs about 10 hours, has several hundred videos because he kept them short – about 4 minutes long each. This is a smart strategy because of the attention span of YouTube viewers. It’s also about the length of a song, which makes setting them to music easier.

David went the extra mile and created a website where he makes available indexes of all the videos which can be searched by location, year and person. David really thought about the potential value of these films and set up a system for making it easier for visitors to find what they are looking for. In a case like his where he has such a volume of these 3-5 minute videos, this is a huge help to other researchers. But don’t worry if having your own website isn’t in your wheelhouse. YouTube has a powerful search engine, and it’s called Google. You can make your videos very easily searchable by simply including the details that pertain to a particular video in the video description that appears below the video on YouTube.

Since your videos will be on your YouTube channel, researchers be able to simply go to your channel’s home page and type a name, place event or some other set of keywords in your channel’s search box. Google will search just your channel and retrieve only the videos that match the search terms. If you want to see this in action, go to my YouTube channel at youtube.com/genealogygems  or David’s channel and try a search.

Digitizing Your Home Movies

The first step is to get the movies digitized. It can be a pretty scary thought to send your precious movies off to some stranger. David considers his videos his “most priceless possession.”

Through a bit of trial and error, David landed with a company who could do the job. He first tried a local place but ultimately went with Video Conversion Experts in Chandler AZ. They did an excellent job and cleaned them up and optimized the film. He recommends overnighting your films so that you can control when they arrive. You can receive both hard drives and DVDs of the digitized movies.

Watch this video from Video Conversion Experts. It explains the difference in quality that they provide. The difference between a company like this and the big box stores conversion is dramatic!

 

Sharing Your Home Movies on YouTube

At first, David thought he would take the movies to the local library. His daughter Anna convinced him to try editing them with iMovie and then uploading them to YouTube. The first film he edited was called A Drive through Suffern.

Free video editing tools:

(Mac) iMovie – https://www.apple.com/imovie/

(PC) Movie Maker – https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/p/movie-maker-10-tell-your-story/9mvfq4lmz6c9?activetab=pivot:overviewtab

Thank goodness for David’s daughter Anna Haas! Just think if these videos had only landed in one physical location like a library versus online. Now another generation of the Haas family has entered the picture to preserve the family’s legacy and touch the lives of so many others. And it’s Anna’s inspiring music that provides the backdrop for the Macy’s Day Parade and several others.

Get the song Find Your Home here on her album Crazy Is.

Visit Anna Haas’ website: http://annahaas.com

Anna’s YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/annahaasmusic

Anna Haas Music Video: Find Your Home (watch below)

When you love people, you just can’t justify keeping old home movies to yourself. You can’t in good conscience leave them in dusty boxes stuffed away in the back of closets in risk of deteriorating to dust. For the woman who saw her parents again in the swimming pool video, to the man who felt the affection from a father long gone, and for countless unnamed others the action that David has taken to digitize, preserve and share his home movies has been valuable beyond words.

“Don’t be afraid to do it, don’t hesitate to do it. even if you don’t have the skill set to do it, there are other people who are more than happy to kind of walk you through it and help make it happen. I would be extremely encouraging of everyone to convert their old movies and share them as widely as possible.” – David Haas MD

Resources

Collection of articles on the topic of video at the Genealogy Gems website

Browse his phenomenal collection of home movies at David’s website

You’ll find inspiration and you might just find an ancestor captured on film. Because we are all bit players in everybody else’s show.

Production Credits

Lisa Louise Cooke, Host and Producer
Hannah Fullerton, Audio Editor

My deepest thanks to David and Anna Haas for sharing their family photos, videos and music with me for this episode.

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate, Genealogy Gems earns from qualifying purchases you make when clicking from the links we provide. It doesn’t cost you anything extra but it helps support our free blog and podcast. Thank you!

How to Identify Old Cars in Photographs

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.

how to identify cars in old photos

how to identify old cars in photographs

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.”

With these categories in mind, visit websites that can help you identify old cars by providing descriptions and pictures of various makes and models. Two sites I suggest are Hubcap Café.com: Collector Car Resources and a Flickr group called Vintage Car Identification. (This second one is for the truly stumped because you can submit a photo that car enthusiasts from around the world could help you identify.)

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.)

My book The Genealogist’s Google Toolboxwhich is where you’ll find all the tips you need for doing these Google searches–has an entire chapter on finding videos on YouTube. A quick YouTube search on “Willys Knight 1928” brought up this short but cool video uploaded in 2014: “Take a ride in a 1928 Willys Knight made in, owned in and driven in Toledo, Ohio.”

2. Investigate old license plates

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:

how to identify old cars in photographs

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.

Registers of Motor Vehicles and Dealers in Motor Vehicles, with Indices 1905-1913

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 California has 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.

ArchiveGrid

ArchiveGrid

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!

Bill

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