Dating Old Photographs: Tracing The History Of Your Family Photos

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An old photo album is a good resource for tracing your family’s genealogy or creating a family tree. However, budding family historians may be stumped when they notice that their ancestors’ photographs are undated.

This is a common problem with old family photographs. Few of them are tidily sorted according to when they were taken. Even fewer will have a specific date written on them, which can make it difficult to trace when they were taken.

If you have undated family photographs, fret not! Play photo detective with our simple tips for how to date old photographs. With this simple checklist, you can confidently research and pinpoint when an image was taken!

Start By Asking Your Family Members

That old photograph may not have a date, but maybe someone in your family knows some of the faces that are in a group photograph. If you have living relatives who might be connected to the subject or photographer, sit down and reminisce with them. Ask them if they recognize any of the people or places – they could confirm some valuable information!

Examine The Kind Of Photograph You Have

Different time periods used different technology and processes for photography. If you know the materials and processes used to create your old family photographs, this can help you set a possible date. Pay attention to card stock and photograph sizes too – these two identifying details can provide so many clues for when old pictures were taken!

Here are examples of the varying techniques used to take old photographs:

  • Daguerreotypes: These were likely to have been taken during the 1840s and 1850s. These images are made on silver-clad copper sheets and typically either framed under glass or sealed inside a wooden case for protection.
  • Tintypes: These were first produced in 1856 and remained popular until 1867. They may get their name from the fact that the image is processed on an iron plate cut with tin shears. Early tintypes were protected under glass but were later placed in cardboard sleeves. Small magnets are attracted to tintypes.
  • Card photographs: A.k.a. the carte de visite, these were only produced after 1859. A cabinet card is a larger version of a carte de visite. These were made post-Civil War era and were unlikely to have been taken after 1906. Cabinet cards are also well-known for being printed on thick card stock for display, with the most common size being 4¼ x 6½ inches.

Search For Written Clues

Even if the date isn’t written on the photograph, other details may give more information about time periods. A good example would be specific events written on the back or in the margins, such as “World Fair, Chicago” or “Calgary Winter Olympics”. These events will help you narrow down the possible date for when a picture was taken.

Names and locations are also important clues. Something as simple as the place where the image was snapped will reveal a lot of information with a little detective work. This is especially true of old family photographs taken by a professional photographer – the photographer’s name and address can indicate the general time period when it could have been taken.

Examine An Old Photograph's Background

While some family photographs won’t offer more details in their background, you may be fortunate enough to see identifying clues in yours! You might be able to determine when a photograph was taken based on the kind of furniture in the backdrop, or the make and license plate of a car.

Advertisements and products are other giveaways. Certain products are launched and discontinued within specific time frames – think old-fashioned candy wrappers or retro cleaning sprays. If you see those in a photo, they’re a big clue for its approximate date!

You should also search for store signs or distinct buildings. If you know the general town or location where an old photograph was taken, you might be able to identify the buildings in the background. From there, you can research when they were built or demolished, which will give you a general time period for when a photograph could have been taken.

Observe The Fashion Worn By A Subject

When dating old photos professional genealogists have one common technique: looking at the clothing in the picture. Fashion is an excellent marker of the date range when old family photos are taken. Because clothing trends change over time, these details will help you date photographs. 

Look for easily identifiable brands, trends, or silhouettes. For example, is the young woman in that photograph sporting a Gibson Girl blouse, or is she wearing a flower child’s peace necklace? 

Hairstyles also change with the times, so note details about length, fringes, and accessories. Just keep in mind that women’s fashion trends change more quickly than men’s fashion, and older women were less likely to wear a contemporary style!

Clothing isn’t the only clue hidden in your image. Look for medals, headgear, and military uniforms, then check the historical period when they were commonly used or worn. If the photo is clear enough, you may be able to identify these important markers and narrow the photo’s time frame.

Look At The Image Color Tone

The color tone is not the best indicator of a photo’s history, but it can be very useful when combined with other tips. A general rule followed by genealogy buffs is to note a photo’s image’s warmth or coolness. Neutral black and white tones are more common in a photograph taken from the 1890s until the present day. Warm tones are more likely to be seen in images taken from the 1860s to the 1910s.

Learn How To Date Old Photos With Ease

Dating an old photograph is like putting together a puzzle. When you finish identifying all the pieces you need, you can confidently confirm the time range when a photograph was taken. 

Take your time, do your research, and keep notes so you can make a solid plan for organizing your old photo collection. With some practice and more knowledge, you’ll become a wiz at dating your ancestors’ vintage photos!

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