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Dating 19th-Century Photographs

Andrew J. Morris explains the technicalities and fashion styles of old photographs.

Illustration 1.Carte-de-Visite or CDV of William Malster with oval image in ornate frame, ca. 1864. Andrew J. Morris collection.
Old photographs 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.

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 creation.

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.

Illustration 2. Picture of Helen E. Tuvill, ca. 1862. Andrew J. Morris
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.

The Processes
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.

Illustration 3. The backs of four CDVs, showing different imprint styles and a tax stamp.
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.

Daguerreotype 1839-1860
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.

Ambrotype 1854-1860s
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 it.

Tintype 1856-1900
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.

Illustration 4. Picture of “Emily” ca. 1865. Andrew J. Morris collection.

Carte-de-Visite 1859-1890s
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 Card 1866-1910
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 mm).

Further Clues
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.

Illustration 5. Picture of “Susie, June 1874.” Andrew J. Morris collection.
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.

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 left).

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 or later.

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.

Further Reading

Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa (Kent State U., Kent, OH 1995).

Collection, Use, and Care of Historical Photographs by Robert A. Weinstein and Larry Booth (AASLH: Nashville, TN 1977) .

Cartes de Visite in 19th Century Photography by William C. Darrah (Darrah: Gettysburg PA 1981).

“Dating Old Photographs”, order our Dating Old Photographs Special Publication at $12 US (incl. shipping). Call 1-888-326-2476 or visit

This article originally appeared in the March/April 1999 issue of Family Chronicle.


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