Free 19th-Century Portrait Photographs for Genealogy Research

Free 19th-century portrait photographs

Miss Grace Gibbs (LC-DIG-bellcm-12452)

The Library of Congress has released 25,000 free 19th-century portrait photographs for research.

Digitized from glass plate negatives, the collection of 19-century portrait photographs were made by Washington D.C. photographer C.M. Bell. Bell and his successors photographed their subjects between 1873 and 1909.

The portrait photographs nearly all have names attached and often dates, making this a useful genealogy research tool for those with D.C. ancestors. And because dates are generally known, this is also a great resource for dating your photographs by comparing clothing, hairstyles, etc. (If you use this collection for photo dating, try the search term “clothing and dress,” for best search results.)

The C.M. Bell photographs are featured this month under the “free to use and reuse” feature on the Library’s home page. Each month, the website showcases content from the Library’s collections that has no known copyright restrictions—meaning you can use the photos as you wish.

Besides portraits, Bell also captured some street scenes and public events, such as openings of Congress, treaty signings and parades. When Native American delegations visited Washington for negotiations, he also photographed them.

Military brass, senators, socialites and even babies—these are a handful of Washington, D.C., subjects photographed by Charles Milton Bell (1848–93) during the last quarter of the 19th century. The Library recently digitized more than

C.M. Bell was the youngest member of a family of Washington photographers. He opened his own studio on Pennsylvania Avenue in 1873, eventually becoming one of the city’s leading portrait photographers. He snapped Washington notables—including President Grover Cleveland and Mrs. Cleveland—as well as visitors, business people, embassy officials, church leaders, athletes, and members of the black and white middle class.

Free 19th-century portrait photographs

Rev. J. A. Johnston Family (LC-DIG-bellcm-12424)

These free 19th-century portrait photographs are charming and compelling illustrations of a specific age and time. Do you plan to use this collection for research? Let me know.

free 19th-century portrait photographs

Miss J.M. McDonnell (LC-DIG-bellcm-10441)

About the Author:

Nancy Loe has an MA in American History and an MLS in Library Science and Archives. She has appeared on PBS’s American Experience, at Rootstech, SCGS Jamboree, and state and regional genealogy conferences. Her website was featured in Family Tree Magazine's “Social Media Mavericks: 40 to Follow.”


  1. Michael 17 June 2017 at 5:45 PM - Reply

    Wow! That’s a fantastic resource. Thanks for sharing and bringing it to our attention.

    • Nancy Loe 18 June 2017 at 9:54 PM - Reply

      Glad it’s helpful, Michael. I could look at those faces all day.

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