Family Photos Throughout the 20th Century

A moment in time, preserved forever.

I’ve written before about how I’m not a fan of the family photo du jour that seems to be dominating the walls and hearts and minds of families across America.

You can read my rant – Just Your Average Family Hanging Around On A Sofa In The Orchard – about plush couches lugged out into random orchards and then sat upon by smiling families dressed in matching Anthropologie sweaters.  But listen, if you’re averse to salty language you may just want to skip ahead to the most excellent slideshow featuring family photos from every decade in the 20th century.

I’ve been reading a lot of novels that take place in the thirties and forties.  These fictional creations feature families, characters created so beautifully by authors that I was inspired to Google “family photos 1940’s” to get an idea of the type of folks about whom I was reading.  The images my search procured are beyond cool.  Unsmiling faces staring out into the camera, somber exteriors belying… well, belying what?  Inner turmoil?  Bad marriages?  Economic strife?  Who knows?

One thing is for sure, it’s fascinating to observe not only how wardrobes change throughout the decades, but also note how and where families pose for photos.  From austere settings draped with dark cloths to lounging in front of the family car or perched on a couch in a living room or, yes, an orchard.  The technological advances in photography and cameras also obviously play a large role in the types of photos produced.

Take a look:

  • 1900 1 of 13
    This photo is of the Tait family in 1900. Rev. Arthur James is pictured with his wife Jane and their 1 year-old daughter, Alice.
  • 1915 2 of 13
    This is the Goldberg family. Rubin came to America in 1904 and his wife, Annie, followed with their son in 1907. Rubin died 16 years after this photo was taken.
  • 1925 3 of 13
    The Otis family in 1925 in Indiana.
  • 1935 4 of 13
    This photo is from the same era as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Family could definitely be the Joads, don't you think?
  • 1949 5 of 13
    The Culhane family in 1949. Notice how family photos become more casual. Group posed in the driveway in front of the family car. This era and the decade after includes lots of family photos in front of the car, which, to me indicates how cameras are becoming more portable and prevalent and how proud families are of their automobiles.
  • 1955 6 of 13
    Typical 1950's family. Note dad's wings which signify he is in the Air Force.
  • 1965 7 of 13
    The first color photo. There are a few color photos in the fifties but they become a lot more common in the sixties.
  • 1975 8 of 13
    By the seventies I noticed a lot more casual photos. Gone are the days of the somber and austere settings, replaced by casual photos snapped on the family's way to some kind of an event.
  • 1985 9 of 13
    The eighties has a 50/50 mix of studio family portraits and groups gathered in front yards.
  • 1995 10 of 13
    This, to me, is the archetypal nineties family photo. Matching outfits, cheesy poses. Be they studio portraits or families posing in a meadow somewhere, many photos similar to this adorned the walls in my house and those of my friends when I was growing up.
  • 2000s 11 of 13
    Speaking of cheesy. Yeesh.
  • 2000s Take Two 12 of 13
    2000s Take Two
    Now, that's more like it.
  • 2011 Take Three 13 of 13
    2011 Take Three
    This photo seemed most representative of a new millennium family photo. Family nicely yet casually dressed, sitting on their couch in the living room, where the couch belongs.

You can also find Monica Bielanko on her personal blog, The Girl Who


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