Unlocking the Stories Behind Your Heritage Photos in Census Records

back of photo: Nathan, Paul, Grandpa George, and baby Max.


What to do when you have a family heirloom photo that has nothing else written on the back but the names of the people? First of all, it is a good thing to actually find names on the back of old family photos. It’s just that when I only have one photo like this, I really would love to know some sort of back story and in this case, all four generations are now silent. In order to give this special photo some of that interesting background, I have to do some hunting.



Information just waiting to be discovered

And where is one of the best places to find information on people born before 1940? Next to an obituary, which can be a really great resource, the census records are a treasure-trove of great information. I know what you might be thinking, “ugh… she wants me to go to a library and look at microfilm.” And you would be partially right!


Little known secret to help unlock those stories

Libraries are the family history researcher’s best friend, but what you might not be aware of is that most public libraries also have an Ancestry.com Library edition subscription. You have to actually go to the library to use it but once you have access to it, you can begin to search away. The other little secret is that you don’t need a subscription to Ancestry.com to set up a family tree. That’s right… You can set up a user login and password to gain access to all the free things within Ancestry. The tree and the 1880 census are all free to access from your home along with a few other databases on the site.


From the comfort of my own home

You can set up your family tree at home and go out as far as you can go and then while you are at the library, you can do Searches to locate documents, photos and a long, long list of other items. Then, once you have located an item, you can simply email it back to your personal email and download it at your home. This is an excellent way to dabble a bit in your family history and not commit to a subscription up front. (Although, I caution you… Family history research can be just as addictive as scrapbooking. After all, it’s about your own family and it is hard to find a better reality show out there that beats our own family stories!)


Let’s get started!

As I look at this photo, I knew that my father was born in 1927 so I would need to look at the 1930 Federal Census which is where I located a lot of great information about all three of the adult men in the photo.  As you can see in the box below, I have cut out three snippets from three separate census records that show the family household of each of the three adult Julian men in the photo.

Details create the big picture

What exactly do all the notations mean? In the actual census record, there are headings for each column so it is easy to figure things out but I’ll give you a quick tour around. (Each census has its own unique set of column headings, so make sure to take a look at each one so you don’t miss something!”


  1. On the very left-hand side, the census-taker would note the street or rural route that they were working on for that page of homes.
  2. The names are always up to interpretation because most of the time, either the census-taker didn’t ask for spellings or he couldn’t understand the person giving out the information, or worse yet, it was a neighbor giving the information! So, you might not find your ancestor on your first try but once you start to get a feel for some of the tricks on searching, it kind of turns into a bit of a game.
  3. The relationship column only exists in the census records from 1880 – 1940 (which is the most recent census that has been opened to the public.) Head stands for “Head of Household.”
  4. The next column tells us if the Head of the household was renting their home or owned it.
  5. And this brings us to the next column which tells us the monthly rent or value of the home.
  6. It’s this next column I found kind of quirky. They were trying to find out how many homes actually had a radio. Why in the world would they want to know that? Well, I would guess that if there were enough homes with radios, the government would then be able to put out important information and know that the entire country would have access. What do you think?
  7. If anyone had attended school in the past year, they would note that in this next column.
  8. The next four columns are pretty self-explanatory. The first one is “male” or “female” and then we have “color” or “race.” Next, we have the ages of the family members. (Just remember… they might not be exact!) Lastly, we have “male” or “female.”
  9. In the next column, married couples were asked their age when they got married.
  10. I don’t show it in these clippings, but you can find the state where the family member was born, and the state where the family member’s parents were born as well as the occupation of each family member and where they worked.


Let the fun begin

Now that I have all my little goodies to work with, I can pick and choose exactly what I want to share on my layout. Here is my journaling:


“Four generations coming together in the fall of 1927 to celebrate the newest Julian son, Max Eugene, who was born March 27th. Little did they realize that within two years, the whole country would find itself in the beginning of the Great Depression. Paul, Max’s father, can be found in 1930 renting a farm on St. Rd. 27 in Pleasant Lake, IN for $40.00/month. Paul and Blanche had been married just one year when Max was born and having a farm to work would keep this young family thriving through such a tough time.

     Nathan Julian, on the left side, was the proud new grandfather and by 1930, he owned his own home with his wife, Addie in Grant County, IN, which was valued at $800.00. He was a carpenter by trade and helped his son, Paul build their home in which they lived in their entire married life.

     The new great-grandfather standing on the right side was George Julian. Not only was he a dapper dresser, but he was also a successful businessman which can be seen by the value of his home in 1930. He lived in Marion, IN which is located in Grant County and he owned his home which was valued at $8,000 — a considerable amount at the time. His grand-daughter, Mabel Julian Ketel, once told me that he had something to do with construction of the large buildings in the downtown area of Marion, which would make sense, since he was listed as a Contractor in the census.”


Let’s do this

There are so many ways to find out information that will fill out the stories on your own family photos. The census records are a great resource but they are just the tip of the iceberg. We have online access to newspapers, digitized books, obituaries, family bibles, wills and probate records. I know I’m leaving something off this list but I think you get an idea of what is out there just waiting for you to take a peek!


Here’s the layout along with my embellished journaling.


As a side note, I have fallen in love with the “minimalist” kits by Paislee Press and One Little Bird, all found on The Lillypad website. Almost everything in the layout came from the Paislee Press “Generations” kit. And I will gladly add that I have scraplifted this layout directly from the examples shown with the kit.


I have been searching for some time for the look and feel of what I want my own family LifeStory books to look like and the moment I saw not only the kits but especially the example layouts, I almost shed tears (seriously… they really touched my heart!) I knew that I would have to study the designers layouts in order to become familiar. I want my book(s) to have the same calm and beautiful look to them as I share my pictures, stories and documents – just hoping that they will entice my family to want to keep reading!



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