Who’s In That Old Family Photo?

Date: February 15, 2008      Publication: Bottom Line Personal      Source: Maureen  Taylor      Print:

Clues to figuring it out

Would you like to know who’s in that old, unlabeled photo in the family album? One way to figure it out is to determine the approximate date of the photo by using a number of clues…

Photo type. Daguerreotypes (1839–1860s) are on very shiny metal and can be viewed only at an angle because of the mirrorlike quality of the image. Ambrotypes (1854–1870s) are on glass. Tintypes (1850s–early 20th century) are on thin, varnished metal (not tin). Modern snapshots on paper began in the 1880s and became common around 1900.

Borders and stamps. If there is a double gold border around the image, it probably dates to the 1860s. A thin, red-line border probably dates to the 1870s. If there is a stamp similar to a postage stamp on the back — but no address suggesting that the photo was a postcard — the photo likely was taken between 1864 and 1866, when US photos required a tax stamp.

Background and props. Portrait photos taken prior to 1870 typically had a simple drapery backdrop, with a table or chair as a prop. Photos with complex staging, such as bear rugs or elaborate furniture, probably date after 1890. A photo featuring a child on a donkey or in a cart pulled by a goat is unlikely to have been taken before 1900.

Photographer. Some pictures (particularly those taken between 1890 and 1910) identify the photographer’s name or studio on the front or back. The Web site Findingphotographers.com can help you track down when and where photographers from this period worked.


The book Dressed for the Photographer: Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840–1900 by Joan Severa (Kent State) can help you estimate when the clothes worn in an old photo were in style. Children’s Fashions, 1860–1912 by JoAnne Olian (Dover) can be useful for children’s clothes. You can buy these books online or at bookstores, or your library may be able to get a copy. Some clothing clues…

Women’s padded bustles were in vogue in the late 1860s to early 1870s and again in the mid-to-late 1880s.

Women’s sleeves became very puffy between 1893 and 1898.

Men’s jackets were extremely tight in the 1880s.

Modern men’s ties became popular in the late 1890s.

Clothing alone should not be used to date a picture, however, since not everyone kept up with the fashions.

Helpful: Many photographers had the latest hats on hand for female customers to borrow.

Women’s hairstyles changed frequently in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Compare the hairstyle in your photo with styles in books and magazines from the era (available in libraries) to pin down the date. Most men wore their hair very short in the 1880s and 1890s. Longer hair was more common in the mid-1800s. If a young child in an 1800s photo has hair parted on the side, it is a boy… in the middle, it is a girl.

Source: Maureen Taylor, “The Photo Detective,” a Westwood, Massachusetts–based historian who solves photo-research mysteries, www.photodetective.com. She is contributing editor to Family Tree Magazine (www.familytreemagazine.com) and author of Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs (Family Tree).