How to Recognise and Date Old Photos

four women walking

The ability to date old photos is hugely thrilling. As Karl Langerfeld points out “What I like about photographs is that they capture a moment that’s gone forever, impossible to reproduce.”

The power of photographs to bring back the moments once lived by individuals is an essence found in very rare things. When it is about shared memories of the glorious past there seems to be nothing better than reliving the times with the family and friends digging albums upon albums for reminiscence. But the journey could not be necessarily smooth as you tread on the path to discovering the treasures of ancestors, the photographs without any of the labels, where no one took the pain to organize it for the future generations. Understanding how to date old photos can prove quite difficult.

Learning to date old photos can be fun time to time but also a complex procedure when there are minimal or no evidence to support the date and related details and in order to organize your genealogical records; the task has to be undertaken. The missing dates could be marked as ‘x’ but that could result in too many of them with the similar label which could get pretty confusing later. The help of some clues could, however, bring together the pieces of the puzzle together to form a picture that could decipher the stories of the ancestors.

How to Date Old Photos

1 – The Type of Photographs

The first step to date old photos is to identify the type of photographs could result in the identification of the time of the photograph taken, in terms of years (decades/ era). This could also help in learning about the different types and methods of photographs taken in different times and learning about the cultural and technological advances alongside as well. With the help of a professional photographer, the identification of the type of photograph could be done so to learn about the time of the photo taken and tracing to the lineage accordingly.

The numerous types of photographs in circulation in the 1800’s can be identified using the table below.

Photo Type Popular UseCharacteristic
 Daguerreotype 1842 – 1856
  •  Produce a mirror-like image
  • Image appear/disappear based on angles
  • Back of image looks like cooper
  • Writing in the photo appears reversed
  • Photo often displayed in an ornate, hinged box.
  • Most common size is 2½ x 3¼ inches.
 Ambrotype 1855 – 1861
  •  Image appears on a glass plate
  • Appears to have a 3D
 Tintype 1860 – 1870
  •  Image blackened on iron plate
  • A small magnet often will attach to the image
  • Cut roughly and thinner than a amrotype
  • Early tintypes were put under glass but later were placed in cardboard sleeves.
  • Most common size is 2½ x 3½ inches
 Carte de Visite 1860 – 1880
  • Image on thing card 2 3/8″ x 4″
 Cabinet Card 1875 – 1900
    • Mounted on card 4 1/4″ x 6 1/2″
    • Rounded corners
    • Possible he name of the photography studio

If you need more help, see some examples.


2 – The Processing Dates

This could be a simple scanning procedure of the old prints of photographs but could result in revelation about a number of details about the time the photo was taken. The processing dates at the back of the photographs are sometimes engraved at the back of the photos, sometimes which could be overlooked if the photograph dates back to a very long time. However, upon careful scanning the missing dates could be revealed in many cases. Pay attention to details and you can date old photos accurately.

Also, it is important to look at the packaging material of the photograph carefully, the date of issue could be found on the envelopes containing the photographs. The negative holders contain the date of the photographs taken; upon looking closely this could be of help when the dates are present nowhere else.


3 – The Details of Photographer

It might seem strange to many to trace the photograph when tracing the date of ancestor’s photograph, but that might just come in handy. It is advisable to check on the back of the photographs for the photographer’s name or the imprint as a clue to dig for further information. The imprint of the photographer would also give the name of the studio which could be located upon knowing the city the photo was taken in, and also with the help of local directories found in the libraries. The published directories of photographers in one’s locality could also be found which might be of help once you get your hands on the photographer’s name or imprint on the photos of ancestors. Each clue uncovered will help you date old photos.

Old Photo Family Picnic

Old Photo Family Picnic


4 – Organization and Identification of Aging Process

Organizing the photographs of an ancestor makes it easy to start studying the ageing process of the people present in them. For some photographs even if the dates aren’t mentioned, using the personal analysis could be of help in identifying the other photos belong to which time. Also, if the pictures are of some special accomplishments, or birthdays, there could be some clued present that would lead to the identification of the date of the photograph taken. The baby photos of an ancestor, the high school photos and the grad school pictures could easily be divided into different groups to create an album in chronological order.


5 – Study the Scenes in the Photographs

Not only would you have to study the ageing process of the ancestors in order to identify the approximate date of the photographs taken, but also the settings and the tiny details that usually go unnoticed in pictures. The backdrop of the family photographs may contain objects such as the furniture, wall hangings etc that one could identify based on the era they were present in the house and these clues added with various other ones could lead to the date of the photograph of the ancestors.

Another good idea which may help date old photos is to look at the vehicles and other items that surround the background of the photo. Backgrounds often show vehicles, farm machinery, furniture, signage (marketing, products or other) which may help you pinpoint an era. A magnifying class can also be a useful tool to dive deep into your photo. If you are in search of further help, the antique automobile club of america can provide you with lost of old car photos and a forum which can be quiet useful.


6 – The Dresses as Clue

In earlier times such as before 20th century, the photographs were not a matter of candid pictures or ‘selfies’, rather they were a formal affair and needed a proper setup for the same. Studying the costumes of these photographs of the ancestors could help in understanding the time and era of the picture taken, add the hairstyles and other accessories to it so to make it not only a knowledgeable but also an interesting experience to get involved in the lives of ancestors. When considering photos of a woman, look for the presence and size of a bustle and also the fullness of the skirt. In relation to men, look at vests, neckties, the fit of a jacket (loose or fitted) and how it is buttoned. These can provide clues as to the date and era of the photo.

Mens Old Photo

Wikipedia provides a detailed collection of articles surrounding the various eras of clothing fashion. Here are direct links to the sections dedicated to the time since photography was possible: 1830s | 1840s | 1850s | 1860s | 1870s | 1880s | 1890s |1900s | 1910s | 1920s | 1930–1945| 1945–1959 | 1960s. These links may further your efforts to date old photos.

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