How to Date Family Photographs
They say a picture is worth a thousand words – and in the case of genealogy, this certainly holds true. When piecing together a family tree, heirlooms passed down through the generations can offer vital leads and intriguing insights into the lives of those that came before us. Not only do old family photos allow us to see how our ancestor looked and dressed; they also come with potential insight into other relatives – who could be new additions to your family tree!
If you have found yourself looking at old family photographs, you may be wondering where to begin in deciphering the date in which they were taken. Fear not, as in this blog we will be covering some basic tips and tricks – that when used will help you figure out roughly what time-period the image was captured in. Read on to find out more!
First things first, look for any notation or written information that may be present on the image. If you are lucky, dates might be present – which would give you the answer you are looking for straight away! Other useful information that may be noted on the image, such as an event title (things like “Fred’s Wedding”, or “Judy’s Birthday”), names of photographers, locations, and other notation, could prove extremely helpful – with the use of some further investigation.
Talk to living relatives that may have a possible connection
When presented with family photos, relatives – particularly those of the older generations – may be able to offer further details and stories about those featured in the image. You never know – this could lead to them reminiscing on stories, potentially supplying you with new leads in the process. If the opportunity is there for you to ask relatives, do it!
Visual clues within the image
If there is no notation, and you are not fortunate enough to have a relative that can shed more light on the image, the next port of call could be to check the fashion and hairstyles of those in the image. Throughout the decades and centuries, fashion norms have changed profoundly, which, although still only a rough guestimate, allows us to approximately judge the decade in which the image was captured. There are many useful guides online that you can use to help you determine a rough date. For men’s fashion, check here, and for women’s fashion, check here.
Along with this, if the image happens to be of military personnel, perhaps with uniforms, medals, etc., you are in luck, as military outfits for all nations have been ever-changing throughout the years. If you can locate a medal within the picture, by finding the meaning behind it using a database such as this, you could discover what conflict they served in, offering as another way to narrow down the timeframe.
The last thing to check within the image is the background. Look for things such as calendars, identifiable buildings, landmarks, newspapers, posters, pictures, and any other objects or items that could offer clues – perhaps with a little bit of extra detective work.
What medium is the image captured on?
All the way back in 1826, French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took what is believed to be the oldest surviving photograph, titled “View from the Window at Le Gras”. Obviously, as you can imagine, this image wasn’t taken on his iPhone 13 – but rather utilised what is known as “heliography”, which involves coating glass or metal with Bitumen of Judea – a naturally occurring asphalt. The plate of glass/metal was then sat in a camera obscura (a device that is used to project an image onto a medium) for 8 hours, eventually leaving an impression where the bitumen hardened from light exposure. After this, Joseph would have washed away any unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing a clearer image of the trees and rooftops visible from his windows.
As you can imagine, the processes for capturing images have change massively throughout the years. Following on from Joseph’s discovery, many other forms of photography came into fashion, such as the daguerreotype, ambrotype, albumen prints, carte de visite, salt prints, tintypes, cabinet cards, and many, many more. All these unique forms of photography have different characteristics and can help when deciphering when a family picture was captured.
Let’s break down how to recognise some of the more common vintage photograph types:
Daguerreotypes – If the support for the image is highly reflective, and the image appears as if it is almost “floating”, chances are it is a daguerreotype. The most common size for daguerreotypes is 2 ¾” x 3 ½”, and they are typically housed in a case. The date range for when daguerreotypes were popular is the 1840s to early 1860s. It is important to note that an image taken as a daguerreotype can only be seen from certain angles. If you own a cased image that has green-brown marks, this is a sign of tarnishing only found on daguerreotypes.
Ambrotypes – Very similar to daguerreotypes, however they lacked the same mirror-like finish. Check to see if the image is on a glass plate – if it is, its highly likely to be an Ambrotype. This form of photo was also placed in small, hinged cases. Ambrotypes were typically taken from the 1850s to the 1860s.
Tintypes – Commonly taken between the years of 1856 to the 1890s, tintypes feature a blackened iron plate as a support, and are also often homed in hinged cases, or for some later examples in paper sleeves. Unlike ambrotypes.
Cartes des Visites – Popular during the 1860s to 1870s, when dating Cartes des Visites it is important to note that the thinner the cardboard mount, the earlier the image would have been produced. Along with this, those produced in the 1860s generally had square corners – and those in the 1870s had rounded. They generally measured 2 ½” by 4”.
Cabinet cards – Produced in a very similar way to Cartes des Visites, Cabinet Cards were generally larger (normally 4” by 6”, or 4 ½” by 6 ½”), and typically were printed on card stock, making them more durable than Cartes des Visites. Cabinet cards were typically popular during the 1870s to the 1890s.
Salt prints – Usually taken between 1840 to 1855, salt prints that have survived have a matte finish texture and will often have fading on the lighter areas of the image.
Albumen prints – Similar in look to salt prints, the main difference between the two being an albumen prints’ glossy surface. They often show signs of yellowing – especially around the edges. Most albumen prints were captured from the year 1855 to 1895.
If you are lucky enough to possess old family photos, hopefully this blog can assist you in determining when they were captured – and via what method. They might even lead you to the next step of your family tree tracing journey!
If you are still having difficulties, or want other opinions, why not get help from the genealogy community online? And for more useful blogs, click here.