Photo Dating 101
What is it? Being able to evaluate a photograph to come to a conclusion of the date it was taken in order to match up with a known relative on a family tree.
History of Photography
Methods/Processes, Physical Properties
There are many avenues to explore in photo dating. When determining when a photo was taken, you have to consider more than the obvious. Such as clothes worn, the background, objects in the background and the history of the photo (how did you acquire it). The physical properties a photograph is made of, is another subject to learn. The photo could be mounted on stiff or thin decorated cardboard, paper, copper or glass. Any writing on the photo could lead you to a date, like the name of the photographer. This would lead you on a search for a list of business directory records of photographers from that time period. Start a log of your findings, stay organized and persevere and have many sources agree before settling on an estimated date.
If you can not find what your looking for at this site then, you may want to start with a visit to your local library. They may have or can direct you to, locations that have microfiche of old newspapers to study. You can study photographs with known dates of historic events and eventually develop an eye for details, while noting the dates. Here on our Genealogist Corner you can see a collection of photos from the 1800's. To identify the date of your specific photograph effectively, you may need to study the history of the items in the photograph. The history of fashions, methods of photography, customs of different eras, the history of photography, and even the history of wallpaper. Do not let this sound too intimidating, chances are most photographs have few clues to research . The #1, the photographic method, #2, the clothes they are wearing and #3, the photographer's stamp, if there is one present.
Understanding how historical events effect society and it's fashions is major in researching the date of a photograph. Specifically one that you may have inherited a copy of an ancestor's photograph and the physical attributes are not available, you only have the clothes to go on or just the hairdo. The Civil War changed fashion from extravagant to more conservative. The Victorian era was the life span of Queen Victoria of England from 1837 to 1901, which influenced fashion and mourning customs after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. The rise of the economy allowed the common man to afford more elaborate clothing. The invention of the sewing machine enabled factories to produce mass qualities of clothing. The Victorian period was the true influence of the modern men's fashions, while the women's fashions changed considerably with the rise in feminism in the 20th century men's clothing changes very slowly. The jewelry fashions throughout that era were influenced by the queen and by new technologies. It became unpopular to wear jewelry during the day, when Victoria's, Prince Albert past away.
We see so many of our clients photos that have known dates, that we have developed a sense for the time period by exposure. We are attempting to guide our clients in their efforts to estimate the dates of their photos, by organizing in one place any information that would help come to a conclusion on a date a photo was taken. Any information on this subject at this site is found on the World Wide Web by extensive researching. There hasn't be any claims to be experts, I suspect many sites were just opinions. Photos Made Perfect is not an expert on "photo dating". We give credits where it's due by links to resources. As we learn more, we add on to this section of our site (always a work in progress). Often in our research, we found conflicting information and we did our best to figure out which was correct. Whenever possible we create tables of information, because it helps to have a visual timeline rather than having to read too much or get confused with too many dates and eras to keep straight in your/our head. When we find articles or longwinded discussion on topics, we rewrite to use less words to say the same thing. The "keep it simple silly" K.I.S.S. method also help to remember the meat of a topic "the bottom line". What information here, at hand is helpful in determining the decade of this image. Update! see Photo Dating Service, we officially do this for you.
If you can contribute to this work please email us.
Is your photograph in a little box (called a case)? If the answer is yes, this section is for you.
This is the very first question to ask yourself about the specific photograph you are trying to date. What are the physical properties? If your photograph is in a case, read on, if not, you may move on to another question/description.
The second question is, if it's not in a case, is it some type of metal? if yes you probably have a Tintype that is covered in the cased images section here after Ambrotype. The first two photographs needed to be in a box because of their frailty. Tintypes were not always found in cases because they didn't need to be, they were sturdy. It was just a photography tradition to put it in a box.
Third question "Is it paper?" if yes, skip this section and advance to Albumen paper.
Many vintage photographs are incased in a little box made from a variety of materials. Earlier than 1850s they protected little painted portraits and after the invention of the daguerreotype they housed photographs. Assembled in a factory, they were usually constructed of wood frames, sometimes metal, covered in and on the back side of the door a velvet or felt pad in the door and a small latch.
Union Cases- In the 1850s thermoplastic a product made from shellac and ground sawdust came into use, because they could be decorated and dyed easier. This plastic was called Composition or Union and so the cases became known as union cases and are collected by some for their beauty alone with or without the image. The photo was first, the a glass next, then a frame made of brass.
Long before the first public announcements of photographic processes in 1839, Joseph Nicephore Niepce, began experimenting with photography. To read more about The World's First Photograph go to the original text. While there were many different types of photography, the three methods of photography are discussed here. The Daguerreotype, Ambrotype, and Tintype, were each used in the 19th century and were each stored in folding wooden case to protect the image from oxidation and handling. Each type produced one of a kind picture negatives and were monochromatic. Out of their cases daguerreotypes are easily damaged. The case and the glass for the Tintypes was used just to give the appearance of the more expensive daguerreotype. They sold for 25 cents. To view a table of the three methods differences, click here.
Daguerre’s process, 1839 -1854, involved treating a thin sheet of highly polished silver-plated copper with mercury vapor and bromides and crystals of iodine to make the silver plating sensitive to light giving it a reflective appearance. Appropriately called “mirror with a memory”. The silver is the component that tarnishes and corrodes. Daguerre first published a description of his process in 1839. Like the hologram the daguerreotype image is only visible from certain angles. No other photographic image has the mirror-like non-image areas or hologram-like image of the daguerreotype.
Hallmark -- Stamp marks on the daguerreotype plate which identify the plate manufacturer or photographic supply house. Hallmarks usually consist of symbols, initials, and/or numbers. The number indicates the ratio of silver to copper. The most popular number was 40, indicating 1 part silver to 39 parts copper. Lists of hallmarks used by plate manufacturers and the approximate years that they were produced can be used to date images. These lists may be found in reference books, such as Rinehart's The American Daguerreotype and books by Paul K.Berg.
Other inventors soon improved the process, by 1841 for example, the exposure time for the photographs had been reduced to less than a minute, developed in natural light in an artist studio. The copper sheet was placed inside a camera and exposed to light through the camera lens for 5 to 40 minutes. This may be one reason why the subjects in this era were not smiling, it is difficult to hold a smile or keep from swaying for 40 minutes. The difference in exposure time varied with the time of day or overcast days. After the sheet was removed from the camera, it as developed by vapors from heated mercury. The mercury combined with the silver at the points where it had been affected by light, and formed a highly detailed image. The image was then made permanent by treating the sheet with sodium thiosulfate. His patent expired in 1853 and the market was flooded with daguerreotypist open for business. Below is a photo of the daguerreotype camera. Left photo, is the lens view. Right photo, is where the plate is inserted.
Standard daguerreotype sizes
In gathering information about your photo in efforts to date it, knowing the standard size of daguerreotypes may be helpful.
Folke Brahme, the owner of this photo graciously gave us this information about the man in this photo. His name is Carl Alfred Nystrom of Swedish decent and was born in 1831 and died 1891. Born in poverty, he became a self-taught electrical engineer, joined the fledgling Swedish telegraph system in the 1850's, made important inventions. He worked his way up to Director General of the entire system. Among his numerous activities, one worth mentioning is that he was an active participant in the International Committee on Electrical Units and Standards in Paris in the 1880's, that defined electrical units like volts, ampere, ohms and watts, units that still stand today.
Not all daguerreotypes were protected in union cases, as you see here.
In the case the question of being in a case didn't apply so the next question here would be does your image look like a mirror. Do you have to swivel it around to see the image?
You may have seen in some old books, when the opposite side of a page has the impression of the photo on it? That's what this image was, a direct scan of just one side of the glass that was on top of the photo, the photograph itself was missing.
The Ambrotype method appeared in 1852-1865, the end of the Civil War. A negative image was produced on a glass plate and viewed as a positive with a black varnished backing. It may show a slight shadow or three dimensional appearance. Ambrotype is made by coating a plate of glass with collodion, a highly flammable, colorless or yellowish syrupy solution of pyroxylin, ether, and alcohol, used as an adhesive for making photographic plates. It was common for the Ambrotype to be colored such as cheeks, lips, buttons, and jewelry. To view a table of the differences, click here
1865 Case Image samples
Photo Dating Notes: bonnet, hoop skirt to floor, pagoda sleeves, hair parted down the middle covering ears, chair for support. The leather or plastic cases may sport patriotic symbols during the civil war period.
Photo Dating Note:
You see air pockets sandwiched between the glass on the mans jacket which is an indication that this is either a Daguerreotype of an Ambrotype.
Ferrotype /Tintype Method 1856-1863, 1870-1885
The Tintype was originally called Melainotype and later a process called Ferrotype was developed and they all appeared to be alike and became known as Tintypes. These methods were America's first major contribution to the art of photography. It superceded the Ambrotype by the end of the Civil War and went on to become 19th-Century America's favorite quick picture. It was made the same way as the Ambrotype, except that a thin piece of black enameled, or japanned, iron was used in place of glass. Like the Ambrotype, the image is reversed. Ferrotypes were made from thumbnail size to as large as 11" x 14". With the introduction of multi-lense cameras with sliding backs in the early 1860's, the more typical small sizes were made in volume. These small tintypes became know as Gem Types. A cut-out would be made in a carte de visite and applied to the backs of cart-de-viste size cards with glued paper holding it in place. Made on a metal plate and with a varnished surface, ferrotypes were very durable.
Tintypes 1856-1863 The invention of Prof. Hamilton Smith of Ohio. They were made of a thin iron plate (not tin).017inches thick, coated with black paint. If it is removed from the case you can test it with a magnet, if it attracts it, you have a Tintype. The tintypes of the Civil War Period 1861-1865 are easily identified by the weight and size, 1/6 and 1/4 plate. By eliminating the cases they became less expensive so that soldiers could send photos home, they never did need to be in the cases. They could also be dated by Potter's Patent paper frames. The tin is much lighter than the glass Ambrotype. Both the Ambrotype and the Tintype share the same whitish-gray low-contrast collodion image consequently Tintypes are often sold as the pricier Ambrotype to people that are not aware of the difference. They were also embellished with patriotic designs. Tintypes did not require glass for protection.
In 1870-1885 the Phoenix Plate Co. made plates with a Chocolate-tinted surface that became popular. During this period, Tintypes also appeared to be more casual, with portrait backgrounds/backdrops of painted beaches and outdoor scenery in contrast to formal photography studios.Repairs To Original Photographs
Those of you searching for someone who knows how to restore or even just clean the original cased image, you need to contact a Conservator. Here is one link to start off, how to select a conservator. http://www.heritagepreservation.org/programs/conser.htm
Restoration or preservation of the original may cost up to $1,500. The next best thing is what we offer. We scan the cased image and restore the image digitally. Now you would have the ability to make multiple copies from any digital storage device. If you don't want digital files another option is to take a photograph with a camera that uses film and create a negative for storage. This process would run from $80 - $150. dependant on specific circumstances and don't forget film deteriorates too.
Circa 1861- 1865 Civil War
Tintypes in a case.
Tintype that was in a case and only the metal frame is left.
A company called Taylor's American Gem Studio produced tiny portraits from 1863-1890 the were cut to put into jewelry items, lockets, tie clips, cufflinks and rings. They were popular because they were so inexpensive.
In this 1840s locket is a tintype, the size of a quarter.
We appreciate our clients allowing us to show their photos.
Before and After
Carnival Period Tintypes, 1875 -1930
The Carnival Period produced novelty props, comic portraits taken at fairs and carnivals.
Photo Dating Notes: carnival period
Photo Dating Notes:
turn down collar
outdoor scene backdrop
Circa: 1930 carnival period
Tintype Identifying Timeline Tables
Comparison Table of Cased Images
Revenue Stamp, 1864 Luxury Tax
By Act of Congress in August 1,1864 to August 1,1866, a tax was levied on the sale of luxury items to support the war for the Union. Sellers of "photographs, Ambrotype, daguerreotypes, carte de visite or any sun pictures" affix stamps to the backs of photographs at the time of sale, exempting photographs too small for the stamp. The denomination of the stamp was proportionate to the cost of the photograph, according to the following schedule (one cent stamps were used only when the appropriate denomination was unavailable):
seller (photographer) would cancel the stamp by initializing and
dating it. It was common to simply canceled with a quick stroke of the pen.
Stamps properly canceled are valuable because the image can be precisely dated
and the photographer accurately attributed. Other kinds of stamps were
used besides the regular Internal Revenue Stamp. Stamps specifically for
photographs were never produced, it was left up to the photographer to use a
stamp of the proper denomination.
From, the "Colonial Dames" of San Diego
George Washington, 2cent stamp
This photo cost less than 25 cents.
Salt Prints Process 1839 - 1860
First paper used in photography were Salt prints that could be made from both paper and glass negatives. Salt prints from paper negatives produced a grainy image. Salt prints from glass negatives produced a sharper image. Salt prints have white highlights.
Cyanotypes 1840 - 1915
While there is more information to be found if you search on this photo chemical process, we are only interested in characteristic for photo dating. The cyanotype are easy to identify, they could be developed on high grade paper by any amateur in rain water, and this process allowed for multiple copies and were blue in color.
A photography process on paper by William Talbot. It's highly unlikely you have one of these they have deteriorated to a pale yellow from not rinsing the chemical off enough.
Crayon Portraits/Charcoal or Pastel 1860 - 1905/1930
a French word meaning pencil, the term "Crayon portrait" is any art
that is both free hand, and photographic. Photographic crayon portraits, they
usually measure around 16 x 20 inches, usually a vignette and often a convex
oval. When found in frames they were a large gilded, or ornately decorated
frame. They were the commercial attempts at photographic enlarging, through the
Woodward Solar Enlarging Camera, patented by Woodward in 1857. The weakly
printed solar enlargement required the crayon portrait artist's touch up work in
order to strengthen the image. Crayon portraits enjoyed great success from
roughly 1860 through about 1905, and in some isolated areas until the Great Depression.
These were the first "life-sized" photographic images that were
available for portraiture. Artists used bromide, silver, and platinum prints as
the photographic base. An out of print book (1882) by J. A. Barhydt describes
the process of making the portraits, "Crayon Portraiture: Complete
Instructions for Making Crayon Portraits on Crayon Paper and on Platinum,
Silver, and Bromide Enlargements." Now and then a copy shows up on eBay for
around twenty bucks or so. Unfortunately, the genre is not highly valued as a
topic to historians of photography, as evidenced in most texts on the subject.
The Autochrome Lumière patented in 1903 by the Lumière brothers in France and first marketed in 1907, it was the principal color photography process in use before the advent of subtractive color film in the mid-1930s. If you suspect your photo is from the 1900s and in color you can get more information from wikipedia.org.
Albumen Process 1859 - early 1900s
The albumen process was on very thin paper and mounted on cardboard, books and other items. Mounts come in many colors with text and many sizes and designs. You can identify them by their deterioration. If kept under poor conditions they fade and become yellow, with foxing (brown spots). Under good conditions they would be gray, not sepia toned and their surface were generally glossy. Egg whites were used in the Albumen paper process which creates the shinny surface. Holding the photograph at eye level and slightly on an angle, you will see the shine of the egg white wash. Basically any Carte de Visite or Cabinet card is an Albumen Process.
If you need more details, read the following for the full account of this process:
Journal Vol. 1856 by Mr. James Ross found in Cyndi's List, a site for genealogist dedicated to every aspect of genealogy related links.
Card de Visite 1854 - 1860
Andre Disderi, self portrait
The Carte de visite was invented in 1854 by Andre Disderi in 1854 and were introduced in 1859. They were produced in the millions in the later part of the 19th Century they are not particularly rare today, but are collectable. They were portraits measuring about the size of a business card, 2 1/4" x 3/4" (5.5cm x 9.5cm), mounted on 2.5 x 4" card. . The albumen photo was paper photo mounted on cardboard. They are matted or glossy and usually in sharp focus. They were popular until 1866 when the cabinet card became the latest and greatest. The Victorians were avid collectors of photographs. The trend was called cartomainia. Every home was decorated with carte de visite.
Visit our Victorian Photo Albums for individual photo dating comments; this will give you a better understanding of changes through the decades of carte de visits.
This photographer is John D.Godeus from San Francisco.
Carte de vistes, can be dated by their color and backsides that often have a photographers stamp which can be researched to find a date of when that particular photographer was in business. The mounts used were also subject to trends and can be dated by the rounded corners, gold, red and double lines. Also, scalloped edges and the glossy surface or graininess. Through-out this site you will find that we created tables to make finding your photos' description easier, reducing reading time and helps to remember as well.
Pastels came in yellow, green peach and pink.
Cabinet Cards 1866-1906 can be dated by the color of the card, borders, corners and size just like the cart de visite. They stopped making them after 1906. Most popular card sizes were 6 1/2 x 4 1/2. The photography itself is from an albumen process. One warning when you apply this table to the card you are dating....the photograph on the card maybe a copy of a daguerreotype, for instance.
Colors-Corners and Borders Timeline Table (applies to card de viste too)
When you come across a photo that appears to be two identical photos side by side, you are looking at photos made to view through a entertainment system called a Stereo Viewer. Stereo viewer was invented in 1849. They can be found at antique shows and sell for about $150., plus the cost of cards to view. There is where you could spend your fortune. The subjects appear to be three dimensional, very amusing. Variations of these systems are still in use today.
Disadvantages of stereo cards, slides or any other hard copy or print are that the two images are likely to receive differing wear, scratches and other decay. This results in stereo artifacts when the images are viewed. These artifacts compete in the mind resulting in a distraction from the 3D effect, eye strain and headaches.
Name and address of photographer and his message
You may want to research the photographer business records to find out the date of the photograph. You should find a list of addresses they occupied in the course of their business life.
Type: Cabinet Card
Photographer: Alex Arnold Greenwich N.Y.
Photo Dating Note: Cabinet card circa 1866-1880, black card popular in the mourning period for Prince Albert. Single gold line around edge, collar covers neck with lace and a brooch. Photographer's information present.
Photo Dating Note:
Cabinet Card, circa 1880-1890
mutton sleeves, square corners, gold scalloped edge. Photographer present with full ornate business stamp on back.
The official term for the act of studying and collecting postcards is deltiology.
Photo dating features and samples of postcards:
Era, 1840 - 1869
Prior to postcards came the lithograph print, woodcuts and broadsides. The direct ancestor seems to be the envelopes with pictures on them. These first envelopes were produced by D. William Mulready, E.R.W. Hume, Dickey Doyle, and James Valentine. The envelopes were often printed with pictures of comics, Valentines and music. Thousands of patriotic pictures appeared on U.S. envelopes during the Civil War period of 1861-1865, these are now known as Patriotic Covers. The first postal type card in this country was a privately printed card copyrighted in 1861 by J.P. Carlton. This copyright was later transferred to H.L. Lipman. The "Lipman Postal Cards", as we now call them, were on sale until replaced in 1873 by the U.S. Government Postals.
Pioneer (1893-1898) Only the government and souvenir cards existed. 1 cent stamp imprinted on government printed cards and 2 cent stamp with adhesive need to be applied to the privately printed souvenir cards. Law was, no writing permitted on the address side of the card. From 1899 on, the standard postcard was 4.75" x 3.5".
Private Mailing Card (circa 1898-1901) May 19, 1898, private printers were to print and sell cards with the words "Private Mailing Card". Today we call these cards "PMC's". Postage required was now a 1 cent adhesive stamp. A dozen or more American printers began to take postcards seriously. Writing was still not permitted on the address side, however many publishers often left a wider border on the side or bottom of the view side so a short message could be added
Divided back period (cir1907-1915) March 1, 1907, the divided back postcard circulated. Addresses written on the right and the message on the left. From a collectors point these were most desirable because people stopped writing on the fronts.
The Art Deco (circa 1900 - 1930) are known for their vibrant colors, ancient Greeks and Middle Eastern subjects and variations on Egyptian artifacts influences. They often depict pretty ladies in fancy clothes. In 1926 the sizes permitted were a minimum of 4" x 2.75" and maximum of 5.875" x 4.125".
Arrows show the line on the Divided Back
area and the Stamp Box to adhere stamp to on right hand corner behind the back scrapbook paper.
Image 01 backside
Image 01 Front
This postcard is from PMP's personal collection with a known date of 1915.
Image 01 Restored
White Border Era (1915-1930)
Linen Era (1930-1944)
The "chrome" post cards started to dominate the scene soon after they were launched by the Union Oil Company in their western service stations in 1939. Mike Roberts pioneered with his "WESCO" cards soon after World War II. Three dimensional post cards also appeared in this era.
This sample is of four squares in each corner.
We listed general information here for general photo dating purposes. If you want more information try going to Postcard sites that we visited that include information about postcards from other countries or specific details of postcard manufactures, stamp boxes, or postal rates in the UK.
AZO Boxes Time Line Table
After going to these links and you want to return here, click on close window X at right-hand corner.
Albumen Comparison Table, popular 1854 - 1900s
General Photographic Methods Table
These time spans represent the peak of popularity, so this means any photo type can still be found outside of these spans.
Reference Photo Dating Books
Here are some books you may want to purchase new or used at Amazon.com. The information we have given you may be enough but to some of us, there is nothing like having the information at your finger tips to read over and over again or lend to a friend.
Card Photographs : A Guide to Their History and Value by Lou W. McCulloch
Collector's Guide to Early Photographs by O. Henry Mace.
Cartes de Visite in Nineteenth Century Photography.by W. C. Darrah.
Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929 by Halvor Moorshead
Collecting Photography by Gerry Badger
More Dating Old Photographs by Halvor Moorshead
American Victorian Costume in Early Photographs by Priscilla Harris Dalrymple
Unlocking the Secrets in Old Photographs by Karen Frisch-Ripley
Image Editing Consultant
Always a work in progress, please visit often. We apologist for any long periods between entries some times medical issues prevail.