One of the most fun aspects of researching the history of your house is viewing old photos of it from yesteryear. Old photos can reveal what color your house used to be and alert you to any alterations or additions that have been made. Here are some of the best places to look for photos.
1. Your Local Historical Society
When people clean out their parents’ estates or move from town they often leave their archive of local photos at the town historical society. Your local society may have large collections of photos of homes and buildings in your town through the years.
2. Images of America books
Arcadia Publishing puts out several series of local history books most of which are photographically based. The Images of America series features old photos of individual towns and cities. Many towns in New England have books specific to them. You will find many photos of old homes in the series and many even find a photo of yours! These are often for sale at your historical society or can be viewed at your library.
New to town and looking for photos of your house? Check with your neighbors. Maybe they didn’t set out to take a photo of your house but they might just have one anyway. Photos could have been taken of the neighborhood kids or from a neighborhood block party and your house could be in the background. See who has lived in your neighborhood the longest and ask them to check their photo albums.
4. Former Owners
The people who used to live in your home are very likely to have old photos of your house. The trick is tracking them or their children or grandchildren down to get copies of the photos. Do a little detective work or ask your neighbors for contact information. Send them a polite and non-intrusive letter to ask for the photos. Be sure to offer to pay for copies if they can’t make scans.
5. The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)
If you have an older, significant house there may be a photo available on the HABS section of the Library of Congress website. HABS originated as a Works Project Administration effort to put architects and photographers to work by surveying historical homes in the 1930s. Each HABS file includes a photo or schematic which will show you what your home looked many years ago.
6. Local History Books
Don’t rely on just old photo books for images of your house. Local history books, whether specific to your town or county, may also have images or drawings of your home from years ago. Peruse the local history section of your library stacks to find these books, some of which were published in the late 1800s.
7. Local Library History Room
Some libraries have their own local history rooms set aside for historical town collections. You could go to your library for years and not know that they have a local history room if you’ve never asked. Often these rooms are locked and require sign in. The local history room can contain many different types of collections including, old newspapers, tax records, and old photos.
8. Old Newspapers
It might take a bit more work if there isn’t an index available but old newspapers can provide old photos of your house too. Is your house located near the town center? Your home could be featured in photographs of town parades or highlights of holiday decorations on the Fourth of July, Halloween or Christmas. If you live in an area that floods your house could be featured in an expose after a 100 year flood.
9. Real Estate Listing Sheets and Ads
If your house has been sold a number of times in the past 20 years there may be lots of old photos of your home. Check with a local real estate agent and ask them to print out the listing sheets for all the previous sales of your home. Keep in mind that listings have only been computerized in the last 10 years or so. However, some historical societies (Dover, MA for example) have files of printed copies of listings that can go back earlier. Also, before computers, advertisements, sometimes even full page, were taken out in local magazines and newspapers. These could also be good sources for old photos of your house.
10. Historical Commission Survey Sheets
During the 1970s and 1980s local historical commissions started surveying the historical properties in each town. Most survey forms include a photograph. Check your local library for a copy of the survey sheets. If you can find them, check with the state historical commission or preservation office.
Having success finding old photos of your house? Send me a note and let me know. I would love to hear your stories of where you found them and how old the photos are.