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July 15, 2009

Dating Old Family Photos

You've found a box of old photos in your great-aunt's attic. She doesn't want them and tells you to go ahead and take the box. Some of the pictures are identified by name but you've no idea when the photos were taken! What do you do now?

The first thing you need to do is figure out the approximate time period of each photo. Is it 20th century, or 19th century? Mid 1800s? Late 1800s? How do you figure it out?

You can date photographs through various clues:

1. Type of photo - Tintype, daguerreotype, Carte de visite, cabinet card, 1900s home photos - narrow your time frame by first identifying the photo type.

2. Photographer's name (if there is one). Research the photographer. Find out when he or she was in business.

3. Photographer's mark and logo on the back of a CDV (Carte de Visite). Marks and logos changed over time from none to simple to more elaborate.

4. Fashion, especially women's fashions. Are the skirts full? Do they have hoops? Crinolines? Do they simply fall from the waist? Does the dress have full sleeves? Tight tapered sleeves? Dropped shoulder? A Yoke effect? High collar? Low collar? Natural wwaistline with belt? Dropped waist? Bustle? All these and more indicate fairly specific years.

5. Hairstyles. Women's hairstyles in particular changed over the years. Look to see if the ears are exposed or covered. Is hair parted in the middle and swept back severely? Is it low on the nape of the neck? Is it in sausage curls or ringlets? Is it gathered high on the top of the head? There are many variations and every one is typical of a fairly specific time period.

6. Is there a Revenue Stamp on the back? This dates your photo to 1864-1866. If you're lucky, the photographer date stamped his revenue stamp as he was supposed to.

There are many details you can also look for when attempting to date an ancestor photo. See Hints For Dating an Ancestor Photograph for information on Photo Corners (round versus square cut), quality of photograph cards (thin, thick), colured backings versus non-coloured etc.

It's a great feeling to get a box of old family photos and be able to slot them into time periods! Why not join us on Lost Faces: Ancestor Photos & Albums on GenealogyWise. This is a group I created to talk about our old photos and to help each other identify the years taken.

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