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How to Date Old Photographs

  • Written by | 7 Comments7 Comments Comments
    Last Updated: November 23rd, 2009

    Dating photographs is one of the things the family history researcher is able to use, but often have a problem when it involves the age of the photograph. One of the reasons for this is due to the different types of paper or even tin that was used for the photograph.

    One of the things that can provide clues is the hair styles of the women in the picture, because just like today they changed hair styles. While their hair would not be short, the type of bun, bangs or no bangs can provide hints to the age of the photograph. Men’s hair styles and facial hair is not as easy to decipher the photos age. The clothing can also be an indicator in the age of a picture, women whether they lived in the country or the city for most photographs would be wearing the latest fashions. Men, on the other hand can be difficult as suits did not change from year to year.

    The paper backing on the photograph can tell the age of some pictures; this includes pictures that have tin that the photograph was placed on. There are pictures that used daguerreotype, glass plate, cabinet card, and the thickness of the cabinet card can also tell the age of the picture.

    Looking at a picture and dating it, takes noticing all of the clues possible. Another clue might be the background, and on many the photographers name will be on the bottom of the cabinet card or on the back of the picture.

    Daguerreotype photographs were 8 ½ inches by 6 inches, and the first of these were used in 1839. The process for these pictures was done by using a plate, made of copper and using silver iodide to expose the picture, along with exposure to light.

    Tin type pictures were introduced in 1853, and became extremely popular. The one thing that was odd about these photographs, was that the picture would appear opposite of how the person was standing or sitting, just as they would appear in a mirror. The material that was used for these photographs was not actually tin, but became referred to as tin because they were made out of cheaper metal, rather than silver. The material was Melainotype and to cut these pictures apart a pair of tin sheers would be used.

    Ozotope was another method that was used beginning in 1898, this was a process that used gelatin silver bromide, which transferred by contact with pigment paper.

    Each of these different types of processes were used for many photographs, and just knowing which type of paper, glass or metal was used can give a range of years when they were the popular choice for photographers to use. The material along with, fashions, backgrounds and even photographers names can all indicate when the picture was taken.

    Using clues to date photographs, along with family history research can often lead to the discovery of who the people or person was in the picture. One of the other things that help to distinguish when a photo was taken are clues in the setting; it was not unusual for doctors to have pictures with a skull in the setting. This can help to tell more about the person that might be in the picture and what they did for a living.

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  1. #1
    richard craven
    February 18th, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I have a photo of my great grandparents it appears to be drawn on card or paper drawn about 1885 she has a dress with pleats in line with arms to breast in a V neck line.Hair parted in middle and appears to flow back .drawing about 12in by 10in.

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  2. #2
    Missy Jones
    March 2nd, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I have a small tintype in my mother’s family, dating back about to 1860. what makes it so unique is that it has been touched up with real gold. A ring on her finger, a brooch at the collar of her dress, is, after all of this time, shiny and gold. If this had not been pure gold, it would have turned green many years ago.The prettiest thing I have ever seen.

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  3. #3
    Chad Bandle
    June 5th, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I recently found a 2×3 inch piece of copper when i was metal detecting , when i decided to clean it off i was looking at a mans face, the whole thing is copper and it has four holes close to each corner like it may have been in a frame. i can see he’s wearing a suit and bowtie and looks like he has a beard that comes almost to a point, i can’t seem to find any like this on the internet, there is no color to the picture except the copper image itself, i need help finding out how old it is and whether or not it can be anlarged and figured out who it might be, and if its worth anything at all.get back to me, thank you

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  4. #4
    July 1st, 2010 at 11:57 am

    I have a rather large oval shaped picture 12″L X 16″W of a lady with a wide-brimmed hat, wearing a coat over a dress ( I can only see the print of dress, as it is covered with coat) and a young man in suit and tie. One the back of the frame is a piece of copper. Can anyone “date” this picture?? It was purchased at an auction in OH. The photo itself is B&W.

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  5. #5
    Jim Sanders
    February 16th, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Thanks for the tips on dating old photographs. It gave me a couple new ideas to try on own photos. I’ve been trying to date photos in my 1884 album. You can follow the progress at Photo Genealogy at Hidden Genealogy Nuggets .

    Regards, Jim

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  6. #6
    elaine tina
    November 5th, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    i have two pictures saying “Polaroid” on them. they are black and white. has a number “0652211” what year would this be?

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  7. #7
    Marilyn Worden
    May 27th, 2016 at 9:56 pm

    One of my cousin’s, whom I’ve never met, had a picture of my mom’s father (she’s never met him) with a banjo and another guy playing guitar. My new found cousin told me her father, who passed already, told her or grandfather, who passed the same year she was born, was a band in the 1930s.
    She also has a picture of a few men and a couple boys under his father’s name on ancestry.com
    I would like to know more about where they came from and whom is whom in the picture as well as which is my great grandpa. There are no dates on any photo and don’t know anything more but I want to. Can you help?

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