03 January 2012

How to Date a Photograph- Part I

How was your holidays? Mine was full of travel and family, sadly tearing me away from my precious blogging..... but bringing me more stories and interesting facts to add to my family history. So now I'll just dive back into this whole thing:

One thing I see on a lot of message boards is, "How old is the photo I have?" We all have those photos that don't have a name or date on them and God knows who the people are. So what to do? Well, there are actually two places to start, the Image and the Photograph itself. There are some who propose dating a photo from one way or another, each having it's pros and cons. I think that using both methods can be beneficial in estimating dates. We're going to start with the more technical approach as best used by an amateur. An expert can go into greater detail of each process, but as one is usually just trying to get a "guestimate", we'll not go so far into it. As you progress in your finds, you'll become used to how certain eras of photography look and it'll be easier to accurately guess the date of your photos. Now this will only cover the more popular types of photographs that you're more likely to run across. As with any technology, there are castaways; attempts to make something new that doesn't catch on (8 track players, Beta max, and Vanilla Ice come to mind). We won't cover those here, but you may be the lucky duck that finds one, so note that this is just a sketch of photography. Also, things pick up at different times in different countries; so take into account where the photo is possibly from to help narrow down the era.

Daguerreotype (1839-1860)
  • 2 1/2" x 3 1/4"
  • Image is made on a silvered copper plate- very easy to scratch off the image!
  • Because of the fragile medium, these are usually cased in glass
  • Americas- usually framed in wood with a leather or paper covering
  • Distinguishing feature: depending on the angle of the light, the picture can appear as a negative.
Ambrotype (1851-1860)
  • Like Daguerreotypes, they are usually mounted on glass. However, they appear as a positive image no matter the angle of the light.
  • Using a dark background or dark piece of glass creates the positive image
  • Usually mounted in a metal frame
Tintype (1854-1950)
  • Sized ranged 3/4" x 1" to 11" x 14"
  • Bon-Ton style sized 2 3/8" x 3 1/2" to 4" x 5 3/4" and was popular from 1865-1910
  • Not actually tin, but a thin sheet of iron!
  • Because of the speed of exposure, these were often taken at fairs and carnivals
  • Not as delicate as Daguerreotypes or Ambrotypes, Tintypes didn't need to be mounted in a case
  • Tintypes lost popularity with the introduction of amateur cameras by Kodak and were a curiosity piece after the end of the 19th century even though a few people still made them in the '50s
Card Mounted Photographs
These various sized card mounted photographs are what I've found just about everywhere when antiquing. The size, card thickness, card color, and photographer's logo can all be helpful in dating these photos. The following list is from Wikipedia's article on Cabinet cards and is very helpful.
Card Stock
  • 1866-1880 Square, lightweight mount
  • 1880-1890 Square, heavy weight card stock
  • 1890s Scalloped edges
Card Colors
  • 1866-1880 Thin, light weight card stock in white, off white or light cream. White and light colors were used in later years, but generally on heavier card stock.
  • 1880-1890 Different colors for face and back of mounts
  • 1882-1888 Matte-finish front, with a creamy-yellow, glossy back.
  • 1866-1880 Red or gold rules, single and double lines
  • 1884-1885 Wide gold borders
  • 1885-1892 Gold beveled edges
  • 1889-1896 Rounded corner rule of single line
  • 1890s on... Embossed borders and/or lettering
  • 1866-1879 Photographer name and address often printed small and neatly just below the image, and/or studio name printed small on back.
  • 1880s on... Large, ornate text for photographer name and address, especially in cursive style. Studio name often takes up the entire back of the card.
  • Late 1880s-90s Gold text on black card stock
  • 1890s on... Embossed studio name or other embossed designs
Carte de Visite (1854-1900)
  • 2 1/2" x 4" (the photo usually was 2" x 3 1/2" to keep a border around the photo)
Boudoir (1880s)
  • 5 1/2" x 8 1/2"
Cabinet Card (1863-1920)
  • 4 1/4" x 6 1/2"
Imperial Mount (1890s)
  • 7" x 10"
Cigarette Card (1885- 1895, 1909-1917)
  • 2 3/4" x 2 3/4"
  • Used mainly like a trading card
  • 3 1/2" x 7 or 5 x 7
  • 3D image that required glasses to view
Dating the back of a card mounted photo can help as well! http://www.cartes.freeuk.com/time/time.htm is an excellent UK dissection of photo backs as well as other great tips (just remember that the Americas would probably be later dates for the same style as it "hopped the pond"). He has some great photos for examples, so I often check his site to figure out my photos.

Also note that some photos are actually photos of older photos. Sometimes, they would make a copy just by rephotographing a picture simply because it wasn't easy to make a copy (like a Daguerreotype which can be copied only by taking a photo of the photo). Heck, even I take pictures of pictures. I'm just too cheap to buy a scanner!

It can be a chore trying to find out how old a photo is, but it can be rewarding as well. Before Kodak came along and put a camera into the hands of every John Q. Public out there, it was an important thing to get one's photo taken. They usually dressed well and made a big deal out of the whole thing. As soon as we were able to make a picture, we were figuring out ways to get it into the hands of every family member and friend we had. We made business cards (the visiting or "calling" cards) out of it to trade with contacts. With the advent of amateur cameras, we were making wallet size and poster size and everything inbetween! This meant something to them, make it mean something to you and treasure it.


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