Friday, October 1, 2010

The Top 10 Places to Find Old Photos of Your House

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.

3. Neighbors
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.


  1. I have found several ancestral homes in the HABS website. I didn't know about it until the curator of Washington Place in Honolulu recommended it. I find something interesting to look at here everytime I check it out!

  2. One more resource (though probably legitimately left out of the Top 10): your local department of public works or similar. Some departments have, for a long time, documented their work (roads, bridges, sewer pipes, water lines, etc.) with photographs. While they will be focused on what's going on in the street, your house may show up in the background. When I was in grad school at UVM, the school had a huge photo archive which they acquired from the city of roads projects photos from the 1920s-1940s. Good stuff. Oh, and if you live next to a school, check with the school department.

  3. I recently found an old photo of the house my mother grew up in (and in which I lived as a teen)--in a book about my hometown, selling on Amazon. Found the photo on a preview page. Will surely order the book for myself and family members for Christmas this year!

  4. I'm finding it seemingly impossible to find photos of my home. The main family living in the home had a common last name and the last member living here died in the 1950's. Succeeding owners were older couples. The previous owner before us lived here for 20 years and did not change the home all too much. Our home is listed in the HABS database without a photo. Our local library is void of information, so is the historical society. Local history books don't show our street. It is quite frustrating. The only thing we have is the neighbor who's been living across the street since 1959 but she has no photos of our home either, just small stories, which I am not complaining about.

    1. Steve,

      What county and state is the house in? Perhaps I can come up with some suggestions for you.


    2. Marian,

      Thank you for the offer. We are located in Hartford County, Connecticut. Our home was built in 1760 +/-. There is a photo at the historical society that was faxed, copied, faxed... distorted etc. and apart of a file for historic properties in our town. Though the photo was taken only 10 years ago when our street was placed on the national register. The photo was used to identify this home, among many others, for the creation of the Historic District. As far as older photos, perhaps the occupants were not famous enough to be noteworthy of a photograph. Even though two of them were representatives to the State Legislature.

  5. It may also help to look in the city tax records. Some cities still have these files on records while others have turned them over to a public library or historical society. Sadly some cities simply dispose of them.

  6. We are having a similar problem. Our home in Canon City, CO was built in 1898 and to us should be extremely noteworthy. The architect was VERY well known, having designed many notable homes in town (2 mansions). Our home is in the Historical District, although not yet listed. The 1st occupants of our home was a state senator and his wife, who was a local artisan and has several painting on permanent exhibit here at the Center for the Arts. We can't find ANY photographic evidence of our home prior to 1990.

    Not sure where to look now. Historical society has plenty of written information, but zero photographs.