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Free-to-use images

With all the issues that can crop up with photographs that may or may not still be under copyright, and with terms of use on websites that have images we want to use and aren’t sure that it won’t be a breach of contract if we do, it’s just enormously refreshing to come across entire sets of images — literally thousands of them — that can be used freely.

Mathew B. Brady was one of America’s first and most reknowned photographers. Born around 1822 in Warren County, New York,1 he moved to New York City as a 16-year-old, took up photography and opened his own studio in the city by 1844.2

First a portrait photographer and later the first war correspondent photographer in history, Brady had studios and galleries in New York and Washington and documented the American Civil War on a scale that was simply staggering at the time.3 His place in history was certainly secure, but he himself had no way of knowing that. As reported by the Library of Congress:

After the Civil War, Brady found that war-weary Americans were no longer interested in purchasing photographs of the recent bloody conflict. Having risked his fortune on his Civil War enterprise, Brady lost the gamble and fell into bankruptcy. His negatives were neglected until 1875, when Congress purchased the entire archive for $25,000. Brady’s debts swallowed the entire sum. He died in 1896, penniless and unappreciated. In his final years, Brady said, “No one will ever know what I went through to secure those negatives. The world can never appreciate it. It changed the whole course of my life.”4

He surely was wrong about the world never appreciating his work. And today, every last one of Brady’s images is out of copyright, in the public domain, and free for us to use to illustrate our genealogical work for our own families.

Some of Brady’s most famous work is the wide array of Civil War photographs, and the National Archives’ Flickr photostream entitled the Mathew Brady Civil War Photographs is stunning.

And there are also hundreds of individual portraits taken by Brady that have been digitized and are readily available online both in the Flickr photostream and at the Library of Congress website.

Some of these are the famous and the wealthy, sure, and I don’t know about your family, but in mine, neither of those words would ever be aptly applied. But many of the images — particularly the Library of Congress daguerreotypes — are of artists, poets, clergymen, educators, actors and so much more. And all you need is a little thought to see how so many of these images can be used in so many ways.

If there’s a tradition in your family of the lace collars your 2nd great grandmother wore, check out the lace collar on the unidentified woman, about 35 years of age, half-length portrait, in this collection.

What haircuts and clothes would well-groomed boys of the time sport? There’s an image of two youngsters that helps answer that question.

Has your family always had cats? One unidentified gentleman whose image is in this set of photographs was photographed with his cat.

And it’s not hard to link the people in some of these images specifically to our own families. Were any of your ancestors Roman Catholics living in the Diocese of Marquette, Michigan, in the 1850s or 1860s? How about illustrating your family history with an image of the first bishop of that diocese, Frederic Baraga?5 There’s a picture of the Bishop in that collection.6

Were any of your ancestors ever involved in any court case before Chief Justice William Cranch of the District of Columbia Circuit Court in the early 1800s? Or might they have watched the swearing in of either John Tyler or Millard Fillmore, both of whom Cranch swore in?7 You could use his portrait to illustrate the tale.8

Maybe you don’t have a photo of your ancestor who served in the Mexican War, but did that ancestor serve under Zachary Taylor? He was the victorious commander at the Battles of Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma and Buena Vista.9 And his picture is in that collection, free to use to help document your family history.10

Did anyone in your family read the temperance sermons of Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe?11 His photo is available.12

How about an ancestor who was a newsboy or printer or typesetter for the New York Herald between 1835 and 1866? The editor of that paper was James Gordon Bennett13 and his photo is free for the taking.14

Did your family ever live in Troy, New York, in 1852? Could they have had the chance to see the first stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin at Peale’s Museum there? George Cunnabell Howard was the manager of that theatre and the first production used mostly his friends and family — even his own four-year-old daughter — as actors.15 You could use Howard’s photo16 for that, or a town history, or…

The possibilities are really unlimited, aren’t they?


  1. Wikipedia (, “Mathew Brady,” rev. 15 Sep 2012.
  2. “Mathew B. Brady: Biographical Note,” Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, American Memory ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  3. Wikipedia (, “Mathew Brady,” rev. 15 Sep 2012.
  4. “Mathew B. Brady: Biographical Note,” Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress, American Memory.
  5. Wikipedia (, “Frederic Baraga,” rev. 7 Sep 2012.
  6. Bishop Frederic Baraga, three-quarter length portrait, facing three-quarters to right, seated, in clerical robes, holding his Dictionary of the Otchipwe Language, photograph by Mathew B. Brady, Daguerreotypes, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  7. Wikipedia (, “William Cranch,” rev. 7 Sep 2012.
  8. LOC Daguerreotypes, William Cranch, half-length portrait, three-quarters to left ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  9. Wikipedia (, “Zachary Taylor,” rev. 12 Sep 2012.
  10. LOC Daguerreotypes, Zachary Taylor, half-length portrait, head in profile to the right ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  11. Wikipedia (, “Lyman Beecher,” rev. 10 Jul 2012.
  12. LOC Daguerreotypes, Lyman Beecher, half-length portrait, facing front ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  13. Wikipedia (, “James Gordon Bennett, Sr.,” rev. 18 Jun 2012.
  14. LOC Daguerreotypes, James Gordon Bennett, three-quarter length portrait, three-quarters to the left, seated, hands folded in lap, seated beside a small table with tablecloth on which rests a tall hat ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
  15. Wikipedia (, “George C. Howard,” rev. 1 Sep 2012.
  16. LOC Daguerreotypes, George Cunnabell Howard, nearly full-length portrait, facing front, standing, holding tall hat, one arm on hip ( : accessed 16 Sep 2012).
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