Dating Old Photographs

Family Chronicle’s special publication Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929 has proved to be very popular. Many of us have photographs that are undated but in past articles we have shown that it is often possible to establish the date by carefully comparing with other pictures of known date. Thanks to the goodwill of Family Chronicle’s readers we were able to collect over 650 photographs of known date for this book.

We thought it might be interesting to show in detail how a photograph can be dated with a considerable degree of precision. The photo we chose (shown in the center) is of the Walter John Harwood family and was kindly supplied by Phyllis Libby Glynn. We do actually know when this was taken: about 1890.

Even though we know the date, you may wish to work your way through the pointers which confirm this date. No photogaphs can be described as “typical” and our example is no exception. The father provides few clues but the mother and children have several distinctive pointers.

We have not described every thing that may be used as a pointer. For example, the background is clearly a painted canvas indicating a studio shot. Although painted backdrops were common for decades, the drapes and woodwork of the stairs may contain clues. The dress worn by the young lady standing in the middle and the outfits of the younger children could also be compared. No single clue is likely to provide a date but considering all the evidence we can see that this photogaph had to be taken in 1890 — plus or minus a couple of years.

Common Myths

A common myth is that fashions in rural areas lagged those in the cities by some years. Anyone who has looked at the advertisments in 19th-century newspapers will have noticed the number of merchants claiming they have “the latest fashions from New York and London”.

Having your photograph taken was an event and involved much more than the command “Smile!” Women, especially, would not be caught dead being photographed in an out-of-date outfit. Men too would dress up a bit but there are plenty of examples where we can see they could not be bothered.

There is also the myth about long exposure times. It is true that the very first photographs — in the late 1830s in Europe and 1840 in North America — did require several minutes of exposure. However, this problem was overcome in the early months of 1840. Exposure times were far slower than those of today but they were measured in seconds, not minutes. Anyone needing proof of this can see that children, far too young to understand the necessity to keep still, were common subjects even in the 1850s.

 

Even though most photographs can be dated by comparing these to known examples, some can be very difficult, even impossible. Head-and-shoulders pictures of men sometimes contain no clues. Photographs showing the subjects wearing traditional costumes are very difficult to date and brides and bridesmaids often wear dresses that bear little relationship to current fashions.


A sample photo spread from Dating Old Photographs.

Back to Dating Old Photographs/Special Publications


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