Monday, April 6, 2015

Dating Old Photographs

Example of cabinet card with
photographer's details - this photog'
was at this address 1879-1887
Like me, you may have a collection of old photographs handed down to you with no knowledge of who the portraits are of, or even when they were taken. Here's a few tips to help you out.
  1. The Photographer. Many photos may be printed on paper and mounted to stiff cardstock and stamped with the photographer's name and address in the margin or on the back. Using directory records, you can track when that photographer was working at that particular address, narrowing down the time period in which the photo must have been taken. More details on this can be found here: Mystery Photos.
  2. The Fashion. Get to know the clothing and hairstyle fashions of different eras. This article from SheKnows has many useful links to websites that detail fashion from the 19th and 20th centuries. I make the most use out of the University of Vermont guide which also has info on dating photos based on all different topics, not just fashion. Don't be fooled into thinking people in rural areas didn't receive the latest fashions from magazines and catalogs, or that older people didn't stay up to date with modern fashions. See the common myths on this website. Pinterest can also be a useful source to finding images of popular fashions from different decades.
  3. The Format. The materials used to create the original image (watch out for copies made from the original in much later eras) can be very useful in dating them:
    • Daguerreotypes. The first publicly available photographs were daguerreotypes from 1839 until about 1860. Peaked in popularity in the 1840s and early to mid 1850s. A positive image was produced on a sheet of silver plated copper polished to a mirror finish and mounted in a protective hard case. More info.
    • Calotypes. Available from 1841, the process produced a translucent negative on paper, allowing positive prints to be created from the negative. This created a softer image, often desirable for portraits. Despite these advantages over the daguerreotype, the calotype did not replace it and both processes remained popular until about the late 1850s/early 1860s. More info.
    • Albumen print. A paper photograph with a positive image created from a negative (typically a negative from a collodion process which created a negative image on glass). Invented in 1850 but not popular until 1855 when it became the dominant form photographic positives. Peaked in popularity from the 1860s to 1890s when used for carte de vista and cabinet cards (see below). More info.
    • Ambrotypes/collodion positive. First available from 1854 and popular for a brief period of time in the late 1850s/early 1860s before superseded by tintypes. You likely won't see any after 1865. They created a positive image on glass. Required mounting in protective hard case. More info.
      A tintype, probably from the late 1880s
    • Tintypes. A positive image produced on a thin sheet of metal, no mounting required but sometimes mounted in a paper mat. Available from 1856 and most popular during the 1860s and 1870s, but still remained in use up to the early 20th century, though by that point it was considered a novelty. More info.
    • Carte de Visite. A small albumen print (54.0 mm/2.125 in by 89 mm/3.5 in) typically mounted on thicker card measuring 64 mm/2.5 in by 100 mm/4 in). Patented in 1854 but not popular until 1859 and remained so throughout the 1860s and 1870s until the larger cabinet cards eventually replaced them. They were popular as calling cards to be traded among friends and visitors. More info.
    • Cabinet Cards. A larger paper photograph (originally albumen but later processes used other types of paper) mounted on thick cardstock measuring 108 by 165 mm (4¼ by 6½ inches). Introduced in 1866 and most popular during the 1870s and 1880s, beginning to decline in the 1890s, though they did not completely disappear until the 1930s but were rare by that point. A cabinet card with a true black and white photo (not sepia) was likely produced in the 1890s or later. Those photos with the photographer's name and address stamped on the margin or back (such as discussed above) were usually Cabinet Cards. More info.
    • Film/Paper. The first translucent negative sheet film was produced in 1885, with rolls of film as we know it today available from 1888. In 1900, the first Kodak Brownie was released and sold for only $1 (about $28 today), with the film for it costing only 15c, making photography affordable for the masses and giving birth to the "snapshot". Positive images were produced on simple, unmounted paper. 
There is an excellent and more advanced guide to print types available at

The Horse in Motion, 1878
Misconceptions and Myths.

I see a lot of misunderstandings about photography in history and perhaps dispelling them will also help people understand the time period in which a photo might have been taken. 

Exposure times. Many people seem to think that in history, the length of time required to take or expose a photograph was so long, one wasn't able to smile or move. This was true in the very early days of photography, but not by the late 19th century. The first daguerreotypes and calotypes in the 1840s had exposure times as short as 5 minutes in optimal conditions but later their exposure times were reduced to only a few seconds by 1864 with the invention of the collodion process in 1851 followed by improvements on it which increased sensitivity to light. Granted, this was in optimal (bright sunlight) conditions, but I have photographs of small children starting from the 1860s (shown below), which wouldn't be possible without exposure times measured in seconds because we all know small children won't hold still very long (and I don't care what time period they were from, small children still had little patience or self control). By 1871, the gelatin dry plate method made exposure times short enough that cameras could be hand held (ie, fraction of a second).

Small child, circa 1867
By 1878, technology shortened exposure times to a fraction of a second, about 1/25th of a second. Have you ever seen "The Horse in Motion", a sequence of photographs of a horse and rider at a gallop, analyzing it's gait frame by frame (shown above)? That was done in 1878. Without getting too technical, anything that is fast enough to capture and freeze the motion of a galloping horse is more than fast enough to capture a smile or movement of a human being.

Of course, it's reasonable to assume that not all photographers had the most advanced equipment the moment it became available. But it's also reasonable to assume it wasn't too long after 1878 before most photographers were using equipment that allowed them to photograph with exposures of at least only a few seconds, or even a fraction of a second.

So why aren't there more photographs of people smiling or moving around from the late 19th century? It's probably due to the fact that until about 1885 or 1900 at the latest, photography was not affordable to the masses and the processing could be complex. Therefore, the industry was very much controlled by professional photographers and that meant that getting one's photograph taken was a formal event. The concept of the candid photograph didn't really exist yet, and people's only basis for a formal image of themselves stemmed from paintings, where there was no smiling or moving around. So the idea of this as a formal portrait carried over into photography until the advent of the candid photograph. There are examples of candids in the 1880s and 1890s, but it really took off in 1900 with the introduction of the Kodak Brownie, which practically anyone could afford.

Detail. Many people also seem to think that pre-20th century, photographs didn't have much fine detail to them. And while it's true that many surviving photographs from the 19th century don't have much fine detail, that doesn't mean the technology didn't exist to capture it. Just look at some of the photographs of US presidents dating the 1850s and 1860s! While these were probably taken by some of the best photographers in the country, that doesn't mean such detail was exclusive to the best of the best photographers. Take for example the image to the right, which was likely from the 1870s or early 1880s. Note the fine detail in the strands of his hair and mustache.


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