Whether you’re building an online obituary, putting together a full-fledged virtual memorial, creating a mood board, or preparing any other sort of online tribute or genealogy project, supplementing your own images with historical photos and illustrations can help place your obituee within a specific historical and generational context. The most important rule to keep in mind when working with historical photos is that according to U.S. copyright law, copyright protection on any image extends 70 years past the photographer’s or artist’s death. In most cases, though, the photographer is unknown, in which case the law states that the work is protected from the date of creation plus 120 years.
To be honest, you’re probably safe using random photos from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. (Don’t tell anyone I said that.) It gets dicey as the dates become more recent. If you want to do things by the book, look for historical images in the public domain. Public domain images are so called because they belong to the public—either copyright protection has expired or the works were created with the aid of U.S. government resources and thus have always been in the public domain. Creative Commons defines the public domain simply as a space in which no intellectual property rights exist.
One great source of public domain historical photos is USA.gov. Many of the images on this site were taken by employees of the U.S. government as part of their official duties, making the photographs public domain works. For your purposes, it doesn’t matter why an image exists in the public domain. It’s only important that you’re certain it does. Be sure to verify the copyright status of every image, regardless of where you find it. To confirm that an image is free to use or share, look for a credit line and try clicking it. If you don’t see a credit line, click or right-click the image itself or check the “About” section of the website for information on image re-use.
Where else can you find historical photos and illustrations? Let’s say I’m creating a virtual memorial for my grandmother, who worked at the local S.S. Kresge five-and-dime store from 1937 to 1942, when her first child was born. I decide to add my grandmother’s stint at the dime store to a timeline of events in her life. (See this stellar example: Memorial Timeline for Robert Tinker.) Not surprisingly, no one ever took a picture of my grandmother at work behind the counter. Browsing on USA.gov, though, I discover a 1941 postcard from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission showing the interior of an S.S. Kresge store. Paydirt.
Unfortunately, the image is a little small. A Google Advanced Image Search (see this post for instructions) turns up a relatively contemporary photo of the actual Kresge building my grandmother worked in, at 23 East Main St. in Belleville, Illinois. (A quick search of Google Earth shows that, as far as I can tell, the building has now been replaced by greenspace.) I can load one or both of these historical photos onto my virtual memorial, add them to a family tree, or put them on a Pinterest board I’m creating in remembrance of my grandmother.
Sources of Historical Photos
Here are some other terrific sources of historical photographs in the public domain. I like these three in particular because you can be almost certain that what you find on these sites is, in fact, in the public domain. On other sites, such as USA.gov, you need to check carefully the copyright status of each image.
The NYPL collection boasts more than 180,000 high-quality assets. Cool filters allow you to search by color, genre, collection, or other parameters. Enter a date range to limit your search to a specific time decade or other time period. For example, this post features a 1940s fashion illustration from the NYPL collection, showing that my grandmother’s dress in 1942 was right in style. (Well, a year or two behind, maybe—it’s the Midwest.)
The Library of Congress has the largest collection of digital images available in the world. It can be a bit hard to search the LoC because there are so many subcollections and areas of special interest. Today, for example, the page features “American Women Illustrators and Cartoonists.” A good way to start searching is by entering a keyword or phrase and choosing “Photo, Print, Drawing” under “Original Format.” That setting filters out all videos, newspaper and book entries, and other material on your topic, leaving only still images in your search results.
Wikimedia has a collection of more than 43 million public domain images. A unique feature of Wikimedia is that you can search by technical criteria, such as image size or dimensions. You can also filter your search by country, topic, location and so on.