Dating Old Photographs

Halvor Moorshead introduces Family Chronicle's guide to the way our ancestors looked.

The earliest known photograph taken in North America was taken in October or November 1839.
There are probably few family historians who do not possess a number of unidentified and undated photographs. For most of us, pictures taken within the last 30 years are not hard to date. We will probably know the subject but, even if we don’t, there will be plenty of clues: hair length on young men, hem length on young women, general hair styles and so on.

It is a common mistake to assume that trends in fashion are something fairly new. This is only because we are far less familiar with fashions of previous periods; at a quick glance they all seem much the same. Anyone who has spent time examining old newspapers can’t have failed to notice the advertisements promoting the “latest fashions.” Just as hairstyles for both men and women now change every few years, so they did in our great-grandparents’ time.

An additional clue which helps us date old photographs are the poses and props. While professional portraits are still taken at schools, department stores or even “photomats”, most photographs today are casual types.

Until the early decades of this century, casual photos were not common. The visit to your photographer was an event for which you made an appointment and dressed in your best.

We do not deal with the technical processes here: the daguerrotypes, the ambrotypes etc. This is an interesting subject but there are several excellent books covering this aspect of dating.

We have ignored this here since many early pictures will be second generation prints, that is, photos of photos. For this reason, judgments made on the process alone can be misleading. For example the daguerrotype process could only be reproduced by photographing the original, it was quite unlike later systems which used a negative.

The photographs included come from a number of sources. We asked readers to send copies or upload images over the Internet. Almost all those from 1860s and onwards have been submitted by Family Chronicle readers. Photos prior to 1860 are very rare and only a few were submitted. Nearly all the photos from the 1840s and the 1850s are from the Library of Congress collection and are credited as (LoC).

We would like to thank those readers who helped compile this supplement. We were not able to use all the photos submitted but we are grateful for all submissions. Many of you told us that you had masses of photos but no dates. Writing the date on the photographs was not common and people often derived the date from an event (e.g. wedding) or because a young child, whose age could be accurately guessed, was in the photo. Several of the pictures were taken in other countries but the similarities are more striking than the differences.

The ladies in this photograph demonstrate fashions from 1810 to 1870. E. Whitman. (Nora Hockin)
As far as we have been able to ascertain, this type of collection has never been published before. We claim no originality for the subject as there are a number of books on dating photographs but all those which we have seen cover the technical side or are mainly descriptive with few examples.

We hope that by comparing your unknown photographs with those reproduced here, you can find a close enough match to help you at least find the decade. Even if you have no photographs of your ancestors from the early periods, this collection should help you visualize how your ancestors might have dressed and carried themselves.

1840s Photos | 1850s Photos | 1860s Photos | 1870s Photos | 1880s Photos | 1890s Photos | 1900s Photos

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