Whether you collect antique pictures as a hobby or simply enjoy having your old family photos on display, you can’t just throw them into any photo album. Most old photographs are treasured family heirlooms that you’d want to preserve for decades – if not generations – to come. Proper storage is essential for keeping them in excellent shape.
If you’ve recently unearthed a decades-old album of family pictures or are thinking about starting an antique photo collection, this guide is for you. You’ll learn about the main kinds of antique photographs, how to identify them, and tips for keeping them well-preserved.
What Are The Main Types Of Antique Photographs?
Antiquing is a challenging process, especially if you can’t immediately date or recognize the photo. Fortunately, the type of antique photo can tell you a lot about its time period and how best to take care of it.
Common size: 2.75” x 3.25”
Base: Silver-plated copper frame
Daguerreotypes look like a negative or positive image depending on how the light hits. Inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre created daguerreotypes in the early 1800s using thin copper metal and a polished coat of mirror-like silver. These early photographs were considered the first practical form of photography and were encased in glass due to their value and fragility.
Most daguerreotypes were first stored in leather-bound wooden boxes, then later placed inside more robust sawdust-varnish composites.
Distinguishing characteristics: Because of their mirror-like finish, daguerreotypes are easy to identify under the light. These photos are incredibly fragile and typically come in protective cases made of silk-lined leather. Expose a daguerreotype to the air and its silver plate will quickly tarnish.
Common size: 2.75” x 3.25”
Base: Glass plate and dark backing
Popular between 1853 and the late 1880s, ambrotypes utilized a wet-plate collodion process to produce positive photographs on glass. As a result, they were less fragile than daguerreotypes and underwent a less expensive developing process.
Because ambrotypes could not capture subjects in motion, many photographers used them to photograph landscapes and portraits.
Distinguishing characteristics: Like their predecessors, ambrotypes are often stored in mounts and cases. However, they always appear positive, no matter what angle you view them from. Most ambrotypes are printed on blue, purple, or red glass.
Common size: Varied
Base: Albumen paper
Albumen prints were prevalent from 1855 to 1890 and were an improvement on Talbot’s salt prints. Photographers produced this photo-type on a thin sheet of paper covered in egg white. They would then dust the surface with light-sensitive silver salt to keep the image from fading. Once dry, the albumen print would darken under direct sunlight.
Distinguishing characteristics: Stained with a rich, purple-brown hue, these photos also don paper fibers on their overlay. As a result, they might have some cracks along their surface.
Common size: 2.5” x 3.5”
Base: Iron plate
Tintypes were produced in the mid-1850s to early 1900s using iron plates and stored in hinged cases. Compared to daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, tintypes are darker and smaller. However, what they did have in common with their precursors was that they could not be reproduced.
Because of how quickly they were produced, many Civil War soldiers commissioned tintype photographers to send portraits back to their families.
Distinguishing characteristics: You can easily tell ambrotypes and early tintypes apart by looking for a thin sheet of metal under your old photograph. Their mount plates are typically brown or red and not very reflective. Tintypes were also more often stored in albums instead of decorative frames.
Carte De Visite
Common size: 2.5” x 4”
Base: Card stock
Also known as albumen prints, the carte de visite (card photograph) was prevalent from 1859 to 1889. These old photographs were the first to be reproducible thanks to the birth of print-making and a more advanced camera. They were also the first to be printed on paper.
Most card photographs were attached to card stock and taxed with 5-cent stamps to support the war effort. Because of their small size, many Civil War soldiers used card photographs for trading.
Distinguishing characteristics: Most CDVs are portraits with a photographer’s imprint. Early card photographs were printed on thinner paper with square corners, while later versions had rounded corners.
Common Size: 6.5” x 4.25”
Base: Card stock
Cabinet cards were made post-Civil War and were popular between 1866 and 1920. As their name suggests, these old photographs were made in cabinets. While they may look similar to many cartes de visites, these photographs are thicker, larger, and typically display photographer marks.
In addition to sepia, you can find a cabinet card in silver and black colors.
Distinguishing characteristics: Most cabinet cards have beveled or scalloped edges and sport greenish tints. Some have borders, while nearly all cabinet cards have photographer logos on their backsides.
Common size: 192 mm x 83 mm
Used in Magic Lanterns in the mid-1850s, hyalotypes were copies from a negative image and printed on glass to project onto screens. They were highly detailed and accurate, making them more appropriate for architecture and landscapes rather than portraits.
Distinguishing characteristics: Most hyalotypes were made in black and white or hand-tinted. They also often captured buildings and architecture instead of people.
How To Date Antique Photos
Determining the age of an old photograph is much more challenging than identifying the era it was taken. However, there are a few methods of approximating dates on antique photos:
Look At Clothing
Clothing styles are ever-changing – this makes them an excellent clue when dating photos. For instance, both ambrotypes and daguerreotypes captured portraits – but how do you tell them apart?
Because daguerreotypes existed prewar, subjects will likely be wearing high-neck, long-sleeved outfits while subjects in ambrotypes might instead be wearing two-piece silhouettes. On the other hand, subjects on a cabinet card might instead don straight silhouettes with tea-length skirts.
Research Vehicles & Technology
Do you notice automobiles or telephones in your old photos? If so, determining their make and model can give you a clue as to when the photo was taken.
Suppose you spot a Model T vehicle in one of your vintage photos. This Ford model didn’t exist until the 1920s, which means you probably have a cabinet card on your hands. Can’t quite put your finger on the make and model of a car in your photograph? You can upload your image to the Antique Automobile Club.
Other fixtures you’ll want to keep an eye out for are:
- Lamps and other lighting
Determine Any Family Members
If you’re looking through vintage photos of your personal history, chances are you might recognize a family member or two. How old they appear in the photo might give you a clue as to when it was taken.
Don’t recognize anyone in the photo? You might be able to identify a family heirloom, especially if it’s already been passed down to recent generations.
Specify The Location
Identifying where a photo was taken might give you deeper insight into who is in it. For example, if you know about a particular family member who lived in a specific country or state at a given time, this might provide you with perspective on the photo’s date range.
Alternatively, if the photo location is indoors, taking a look at the surrounding furniture can also provide context clues. Architecture and decorative items can also help you date your photo.
Tips For Storing Old Family Photos
Collecting antique photographs such as daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and cabinet cards can be an enjoyable hobby that you share with friends and family. But if you’re lucky enough to have a silver-plated or glass image on your hands, you need to preserve them well.
This isn’t as simple as tucking them away in a photo album. Here are a few tips for storing every type of photograph in your antique collection.
Remove Them From Old Albums
Most people stored older photographs in thin paper sleeves, hinged cases, or peel-and-stick albums. Unfortunately, materials like glue, plastic, cardboard, and chemical fumes can cause your photos to fade and tear over time.
To avoid further damage, you’ll want to remove cased images from their containers and other photos from their picture albums. Then, use gentle adhesive removers or toothpicks to extract your photos safely.
Keep in mind that a photo printed on an iron plate or metal plate might require professional removal. Because pictures from an older time period are highly light-sensitive, a photography studio will more likely have the tools to extract them safely.
Label & Make Copies Of Your Photographs
If you’re sifting through hundreds of old photos, labeling them can go a long way. Marking an image with details such as the date it was taken, who is in the picture, and location can make your scrapbooking journey that much easier – it could even help you build a family tree in the future!
Store Your Photos In The Correct Environment
Environmental factors like heat, light, and humidity can cause further damage, which is why it’s important to store images properly. How you display your photos will depend on whether you use a frame or photo album.
If you’re using an image album, buy one without PVC. Alternatively, you can store photos in sandwich bags in between sheets of acid-free paper.
Not using a photo album? Use acid-free cardboard boxes and keep them out of areas like attics or garages that experience frequent temperature fluctuations.
Hire A Professional Restoration Service
If your photograph seems beyond repair, it might be time to hire an image restoration service. These photography professionals can undo any damage, including stains, tears, and cracks.
Whether a cabinet card or cartes de visite, an experienced restorer can breathe life back into your images, no matter the type of photograph.
The Bottom Line
Like any other family heirloom, antique photographs require special care to preserve their condition. Whether you have a collection of old family portraits or vintage landscapes, these tips can help you identify and store them correctly.
If your antique photographs could use some work, contact our experts at Image Restoration Center today! We can restore your images to perfection for cost-effective prices and as quickly as 24 hours.