Sepia-toned History

When my husband’s grandma died last march, she left behind a houseful of worldly goods for her daughter to sort through. The long process of declaring “keep,” “throw,” or “donate” turned up many an artifact from days gone by. In recent posts, I’ve been sharing a few items I found useful for historical research.

Old photos are a wonderful research tool for historical fiction. Not only do they provide a record of dress and hairstyles during earlier decades, they also document activities of daily living and of special occasions. Because formal photos were so stiff, we tend to think of our ancestors as somber, sepia-toned people, but old snapshots tell a different story.

When my mother-in-law went through her mother’s photo albums, she only kept the pictures she could document. If she didn’t know anyone in the picture, she discarded it. Here are a few of the discards I found interesting.

The children with their sheep raise a few questions for me. Was the sheep a pet or a livestock project? Why was it important enough to be placed in a photo album? What time of year was the picture taken? Thick wool stockings and mid-length sleeves would argue for cooler weather, but there are leaves on all the trees. What color were the leaves? We don’t know. The stockings interest me from a writing point of view—I imagine they must have itched!

This may be the same three girls as in the sheep picture, but a few years older—it’s hard to say for sure.  Certainly these sisters are not having their best moment. The middle sister is the only one smiling—I wonder what she’s been up to? What was the occasion? Are they standing next to a campfire? So much context has been lost to memory. Their hairstyles interest me here: Barrettes on the two older girls, bangs on the youngest. And again we have black wool stockings and leather shoes.

These all-school pictures are mounted as postcards. Notice that the children are different ages, and the schoolhouse is in the background. Can you find the teachers?
The postcard on the left is addressed to “Mabel Fowler from your teacher, Ethel Hamilton.” The message reads, “To help you remember ‘Old Birch’ as it was in the winter of 1915-1916.” Mabel was my husband’s great-aunt.

The details in this picture lead me to believe it was taken to commemorate a special day, perhaps a pageant or school play. Several children are holding American flags. All are wearing their best clothes. And in the back row I see two masks, a hat, and a suspiciously bushy mustache. My favorite thing about this picture is the boy on the far left (see photo detail at right), who is clearly up to mischief.

All of these photos were taken in the early 1900’s, in rural southeast Iowa. These children remind me that while our way of life is very different now, our basic human nature has not changed. We still have the same basic needs, wants, loves, and disappointments as our ancestors. Our common humanity is the heartbeat of the stories I write.


  1. I love old photos. My imagination goes wild as I wonder about the lives of the subjects. Thanks for sharing!

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