Moorshead introduces Family Chronicle’s guide
to the way our ancestors looked.
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.
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
earliest known photograph taken in North America —
in October or November 1839. It is a self portrait by
Robert Cornelius (1809-1903).
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.
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.
fascinating photograph taken by E. Whitman in Rye, Sussex,
Britain in 1899. The photograph was supplied by Nora
Hockin who has ancestors among the subjects. The lady
on the left represents 1860, the young girl (fifth from
left) 1830, the lady behind her 1810 or 1820, the lady
behind the young girl on the right 1810 or 1820, while
1870 is represented by the lady on the extreme right.
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
on a decade to view samples of photographs...