J. Morris explains the technicalities and fashion styles of
have aesthetic and historical value and when they are family
photos, there is also nostalgic and sentimental appeal. But
sometimes those pictures are not properly identified, which
greatly limits their value, both as historical objects and
as family mementos. One step that goes a long way towards
properly identifying a photograph is to establish the date,
at least approximately, when it was taken.
1.Carte-de-Visite or CDV of William Malster with oval
image in ornate frame, ca. 1864. Andrew J. Morris collection.
Styles and manufacturing techniques change over time. Automobile
enthusiasts can easily tell the difference between a 1955
Chevy and a 1957 Chevy. At the same time, almost all cars
from the 1950s have a similar look that lets you place them
in that decade, although it may be hard to put those characteristics
into words. So too with photographs. With just a little knowledge
and experience anyone can learn to determine the date of a
photograph within a decade or two, while careful study can
allow us to date many images to within a year or two of their
We are going to look at just a few of the characteristics
that allow us to determine the date a particular photograph
was taken. Many of these characteristics are of the “no
earlier than” variety — they were introduced at
some known date, but it is impossible to know how long they
continued. Styles often came into fashion, grew rapidly to
a peak of popularity, then tapered off slowly, so that there
are very late examples, though they are much scarcer than
those from the peak of popularity.
One complication that arises from the unique character of
photography is the distinction between photograph and image.
Because we can take pictures of pictures, it is possible to
have a brand-new photograph of an image that is a hundred
years old. The photographic object before us would then have
characteristics found only in modern photographs, while the
image would have characteristics of the previous century.
Much harder to spot is the reproduction of an 1860s image
made in the 1880s. Such copying was not uncommon, and can
be found in any large collection of old photos — be
aware of that possibility when dating clues seem to conflict.
2. Picture of Helen E. Tuvill, ca. 1862. Andrew J. Morris
The first clue to the age of a photograph is the type of process
used to create it. The earliest photographic images that became
available outside the experimenter’s laboratory were
the Daguerreotype and the Talbotype (later called Calotype).
Daguerre introduced his invention to the public in 1839 in
France. When Talbot heard of it, he brought forth the invention
he had been working on, to vie for the honor of being known
as the inventor of photography. The processes were quite different,
and produced very different photographic objects. Calotypes
were protected by patent and are fairly uncommon, while Daguerreotypes
were produced in the millions.
We will mention here only the most popular photographic processes,
the Daguerreotype, ambrotype and tintype and paper print.
Photographic paper was very thin in the 1800s, so paper prints
were pasted to cardboard mounts. While a variety of hard to
distinguish processes were used to produce paper prints, such
as salted paper, albumen, carbon, gelatin and collodian, it
is the size of the cardboard mounts that we use to distinguish
the most popular types of photographs from the 19th century,
the carte-de-visite (CDV) and cabinet card.
3. The backs of four CDVs, showing different imprint
styles and a tax stamp.
The Daguerreotype uses a polished, silver plated sheet of
metal, and once seen is easily recognized by its mirror-like
surface. The plate has to be held at the correct angle to
the light for the image to be visible. That image is extremely
sharp and detailed. The Daguerreotype fell out of favor after
1860 as less expensive techniques supplanted it.
The Ambrotype is essentially a glass negative with a black
background that makes the image appear positive. It is a cased
photo. Invented about 1854, the form lost popularity in the
early 1860s when tintypes and card mounted paper prints replaced
The tintype was introduced in 1856, and enjoyed widespread
popularity until about 1900. The tintype gets its name from
the fact that the image is produced on a thin metal plate.
Like the Daguerreotype and Ambrotype, the emulsion was directly
exposed in the camera, without any need for a negative, so
the images are often unique. (In later years, cameras with
multiple lenses were developed so that as many as a dozen
tintypes could be exposed at once.) During the 1860s and 70s
small tintypes were often placed in CDV sized cardboard mounts
or paper sleeves.
4. Picture of “Emily” ca. 1865. Andrew J.
Cartes-de-Visite, or CDVs, are a type of card mounted photograph
introduced about 1854 and tremendously popular, especially
in America and Europe, from 1860 until almost the turn of
the century. The CDV is easily distinguished from other card-mounted
photos by its size, typically 2.5 x 4 inches (63 x 100 mm)
or slightly less. The various characteristics of card mount,
image and photographer’s imprint often allows these
images to be correctly dated to within a few years of their
origin. All of the illustrations accompanying this article
are pictures of CDVs.
Cabinet Cards, card mounted photographs introduced in 1866,
and tremendously popular, especially in the US, from their
introduction until just after the turn of the century. The
Cabinet Card is easily distinguished from other card-mounted
photos by its size, typically 4.25 x 6.5 inches (108 x 164
Once you have established the type of photograph, there are
many more clues that may be used to further narrow the date
of creation. Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes, and sometimes
tintypes, are found in cases — either the leather or
paper covered wood-frame case, or black molded plastic (yes!
this was the first use of plastic) “union” case.
Within that case, the photograph is covered with a brass matte,
sometimes encased in a brass “preserver” and placed
under glass. If there is no preserver, the Daguerreotype probably
dates from the 1840s. If the matte and preserver are both
plain, then it dates from 1850-55. If there are incised or
pressed patterns and decorations on the matte or preserver,
then it was probably produced after 1855.
Tintypes can be the hardest pictures to assign a date to because
of their long run of popularity, and the lack of photographer’s
imprint and other clues. Most tintypes from the 1860s have
black backs, while those produced after 1870 are generally
brown. Other than that, you mostly have to rely on clothing
styles to determine the date.
5. Picture of “Susie, June 1874.” Andrew
J. Morris collection.
Card mounted photographs offer a wide variety of clues about
their date. Although we only mention cabinet cards and CDVs
here, there were actually over 20 different types of card
mounts by the 1880s, differing only in size. From my observations
I’d guess 90 to 95 percent of all 19th century card-mounted
photographs were either cabinet card or CDV sized. The earlier
mounts were of thinner cardstock, while a thicker paste-board
was introduced in 1870. This is an early use of true cardboard,
it consists of layers of thin paper, with better quality face
and back sheets, and three to five layers of cheap inner sheets.
The best way to measure card thickness is with calipers, but
obviously not everyone has such a specialized tool handy.
Most people do, however, have access to regular 20 pound bond
paper, the kind of paper most typically used in copy machines,
laser printers, and other computer printers in North America.
One sheet of 20-pound bond is about 0.004 inch (0.1 mm) thick.
CDV cards six or fewer sheets thick would date from 1858 to
1869. Cards seven or eight sheets thick date from 1869 to
1887. Cards nine or more sheets thick date from 1800-1900.
Card thickness is less useful for dating cabinet cards.
The color of the card is also a good clue to its approximate
age. The earliest cards (1858-1869) were on white cards, though
those are often darkened or yellowed with age. White was also
commonly used from 1871-74, though on thicker cards. Gray
or tan cards were used 1861-66. Gray was also common from
1872-80, though on a thicker card. Yellow was common from
1869-74. A variety of pale colors, lavender, green, blue,
etc. were used from 1873-1910. Some of these have one color
on front, and another on the back. Chocolate brown or black
cards were used from 1877-87.
Card edges were simply cut off square at first (see, for example,
illustration 1, 2 or 4). After 1871 the corners were usually
rounded (see the bottom two examples in illustration 3). Beveled
edges were popular from 1875-1900. Notched edges were common
from 1894-1900. Edges were often covered with gilt after 1870.
Many cards have a border of one or two lines, often gilt,
around the edge of the front, with the picture pasted inside
the border (for example, see illustration 2 or 4). This style
was most popular 1861-69, but is sometimes seen later. From
1863 to 1868 a fancy oval frame, often ornate with tassels
and other decorative features was used (illustration 1), with
a small picture pasted inside the frame. A similar style is
seen in the paper mounts used to display small “gem”-sized
tintypes; only the area inside those frames is cut out to
allow the tintype to show through from behind. Later cards
sometimes had faint geometric patterns printed on the back,
mostly from 1881 to 1888.
The photographer’s imprint is a wonderful clue to the
date of the photograph. Not only can you use external sources
like directories and local histories to determine what years
that photographer was in business at the location listed,
but the imprint itself has stylistic features that changed
over the years. As a general rule, simple imprints were used
at first, then they gradually became more ornate, until about
1885, when there was a divergence, with some photographers
going back to simpler imprints, while others continued to
use more ornate styles.
Imprints on the front of the card are not of much value for
dating by stylistic characters, as they are restricted by
the space available. On the backs of cards however, the styles
changed through the years. If the imprint is small and plain,
then a single line imprint usually dates from 1860-62. Two
or four lines from 1861-66 (illustration 3, upper left). If
these two to four line imprints have the statements “Duplicates
can be had” or “negatives preserved” they
date from 1863 or later. Four or more lines with larger type
characters and often additional information date from 1863-67.
Imprints with curved lines of text with curved lines and curlicues
between and around them date from 1863-65. After 1867 most
imprints became larger. Those printed lengthwise (parallel
to the long edge of the card) (illustration 3, lower right)
usually date 1868-82. Imprints with fancier type fonts, often
with a different font for each line and sometimes a few curlicues
in between, date from 1870 and later.
From 1862 to 1865 it was popular to have a frame or cartouche
around the imprint (illustration 3, upper right), with various
geometric patterns and lines. A logo above the imprint, such
as an eagle, artist’s palette, Liberty, etc., was used
from 1862 to 1866. The cherub and camera logo was in style
from 1865 to 1872. The logo of a photographic association,
the NPA, was used from 1871 to 1874 (illustration 3, lower
After 1872 the photographer’s imprint was often a large,
elaborate design that covered most of the back of the card.
Those using an Egyptian or oriental motif usually date from
1881 to 1886.
The presence of a tax stamp on the back of a photograph indicates
that it was taken during the Civil War by a photographer on
the Union side, and dates between 1 August 1864 and 1 August
1866 (illustration 3, upper right). If it is one-cent stamp,
it was taken after 1 March 1865.
The image itself may also hold clues as to the date a photograph
was taken. If the image is of the head only, or head and shoulders,
the size of the head can be an indication of the date. If
the head is 3/4 inch wide, or less, it usually dates from
1860 to 1864 (illustration 2). If it is about once inch wide,
then it likely dated from 1860 to 1867. If it is 1.25 to 1.75
inches, then it dates from 1866 to 1875 (illustration 5).
A large head, two inches or more in width, dates from 1874
Clothing styles, of course, were very sensitive to stylistic
changes — especially women’s dresses. Photographs
in the 19th century were not the impromptu snapshots of today,
but formal occasions that required one’s best dress.
Hairstyles, jewelry, parasols and other fashion paraphernalia
all changed from year to year. There are far too many such
characteristics to cover here, but I’ll mention a few
of the most obvious. Women in the 1840s wore high, tight corsets
that gave their upper torso a V shape. Dress sleeves were
tight around the arm. In the early 1850s many women wore their
hair in a style that presents a distinctive silhouette in
photographs, with broad loops just over the tops of the ears.
Later in the decade the loops became softer and lower, often
covering the entire ear, but not extending out so far as they
had earlier. Men’s neckties in the 1850-1857 period,
were stiff, horizontally tied, two-inch wide silk black or
checked cloth that extended out on one side, giving an asymmetric
appearance. Women’s dresses of the 1860s had wide and
billowing sleeves in bell shaped flares (illustration 4),
or more modestly flaring bishop’s sleeves. In the 1870s
and 1880s dresses lost the round profile characteristic of
hooped skirts, and became narrow when viewed from the front,
but often had a bustle or bulge at the back. In the early
1890s dresses had a small vertical puff at the shoulder, which
over the next few years expanded into the full “leg-o-mutton”
sleeve, reaching its greatest size in 1897, then contracting
somewhat again so that in 1898 a round puff covered the upper
arm and shoulder.
Use the changing character of photographic styles and techniques
to establish an approximate age for your old photographs,
and internal clues of clothing styles to refine that date,
and you will soon learn to identify the time period for old
photographs at a glance. Not only will your treasured heirlooms
have greater historic value, but you will learn to better
appreciate your ancestors’ lifestyles.
for the Photographer by Joan Severa (Kent State U., Kent,
Use, and Care of Historical Photographs by Robert A. Weinstein
and Larry Booth (AASLH: Nashville, TN 1977) .
de Visite in 19th Century Photography by William C. Darrah
(Darrah: Gettysburg PA 1981).
Old Photographs”, order our Dating Old Photographs
Special Publication at $12 US (incl. shipping). Call 1-888-326-2476
article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 issue
of Family Chronicle.