Finding Vintage Images

Picturing the Past - Part 2 of 6   

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There are so many potential sources for vintage photographs, ads, maps and postcards, figuring out where and how to start your search can be overwhelming. You can save yourself a lot of time and trouble by talking to your local librarian. Good librarians don’t just know what’s in their own collections; they know what’s available online and what you may find at other facilities in your community.

Offline Institutional Sources

The location of offline material will vary by town and state. You may find vintage images in a public library, a college or university library, a private collection of some sort, state or local historical society archives or within city or county departments. Some institutions gladly allow access to the images in their collections. Others, unfortunately, do not.

Worthwhile sources to check include the following:  

Local Histories – These come in lots of different formats including books, pamphlets, high school research papers and college theses. They range from the very detailed to the rudimentary. Not all contain images and the quality of images varies.  

Board of Trade or Chamber of Commerce Publications – These annually produced booklets were quite popular from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century. They are frequently overlooked because most are little more than glorified marketing documents. Nevertheless, they often contain lots of excellent, high quality photos and ads.

Programs from Special Events – Did your town have a big celebration on its 100th birthday or receive some kind of crazy award or designation? There may be an official program chock full of photos commemorating that event.

Photo Albums – Many libraries and historical societies receive private photo collections from people’s estates. In addition to the first day of school and holiday shots, these humble albums occasionally include wonderful historic images. Often the photos have not been sorted or catalogued. If you have time, you might be able to work out an exchange of services. Perhaps you could sort several boxes of photos in exchange for permission to scan and use the images. As a courtesy give the library or historical society digital copies of the images you scan.

Old Yellow Pages and Newspapers – The Yellow Pages section of old phonebooks contains business listings and ads, some of which include pictures and maps. Old local newspapers are certainly one of the best sources of historic images. The problem with these publications is the image quality is sometimes poor.  

In the Wild

Not all vintage images are in carefully controlled institutional environments. Antique shops, estate sales, auctions and yard sales are good sources for old images. If you approach your search as an adventure and come equipped with a few spare hours and some patience, you can hit the vintage picture mother lode in secondhand shops and flea markets. You’ll find boxes and bins of postcards, loose pictures, family photo albums, local history books, old yearbooks and business directories that contain pictures of town.

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Tell second hand and antique shop owners what you’re searching for and ask them to be on the lookout for relevant material. I have a Facebook page devoted to historic images of Marietta, Ohio. A shopkeeper recently contacted me because a pile of old calendars that were illustrated with even older pictures had come in. He let me borrow them overnight to scan them. On another occasion, the Salvation Army in a neighboring town called because they found two wonderful old photos mixed in with other items in a donation box.

Most people want to see old pictures preserved and shared, but they don’t know who to contact. Become the contact person.  

Grandma’s Attic  

Even if you do have a good collection of pictures, consider putting out a call for photos on social media. Tell people what you’re looking for and ask them to check the attic, the basement, old family albums and to post what they find on your Facebook page.

People love getting involved with this kind of project. It’s like a treasure hunt and interesting shots will turn up, including pictures no one outside the immediate family has ever seen. A local history photo hunt will engage and entertain your current audience. It will also attract new people to your page or site.  

Some people, especially older folks, have pictures but no way to scan them and no idea how to post them online in any case. Offer to collect and scan the photos in exchange for permission to use the images. When you’re done scanning, return the prints along with digital versions to their owners. I’ve done this several times. It’s a win for everyone involved.   

Online Sources

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A few hours spent searching online for old pictures will yield a stunning amount of material. Start with simple search terms like “historic images of Coolville” then follow the breadcrumbs. You’ll find blogs, the online collections of libraries and historical societies, family collections, shopping sites selling photos and old postcards, genealogy websites, unions, fraternal organizations, city sites, newspaper archives, etc.

After you feel you’ve exhausted the normal search results, head into the world of social media platforms. The two most obvious and likely places to find pictures are Facebook and Pinterest.   

Regardless of where you find your images, you MUST pay heed to issues surrounding copyrights, creative commons licenses and royalties, all of which are discussed in Part 3 of this series coming up next. 

What image sources would you recommend? Are there any really unusual places where you’ve found old pictures?