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We place some essential cookies on your device to make this website work. We'd like to use additional cookies to remember your settings and understand how you use our services. This information will help us make improvements to the website. When photographs are passed down through generations of families, sometimes the stories of the people in the images become fragmented or lost. If you find yourself with a collection of photographs that lack contextual information, there are a of clues you can look out for.
The most effective way to date photographs is to combine historical analysis with knowledge of different photography techniques and materials through time. Here at The National Archives, we have teams who specialise in both areas and in this blog, Visual Collections Researcher Katherine Howells and Conservator of photographs and paper Ioannis Vasallos share their tips. If so, you may be able to date it to the period when the photographer was active.
You can also look out for handwritten Dating nineteenth century photographs on the back of the photograph such as names, events or locations. If your photograph depicts people, look at what they are wearing, as fashion can be a very useful indicator of when it was taken. Look at the length and shape of skirts in particular. Look also at sleeves — is there a puff at the shoulder? And hairstyles — consider the parting, fringe and accessories. All of these clues will help you to determine the particular era of fashion being displayed. There are plenty of online resources on the history of fashion which can assist you in identifying the different elements.
The presence of an individual in uniform can make the process of dating the photograph easier. This is the case for photographs taken in the 20th century, when uniforms become more standardised. However, for earlier photographs, uniforms can sometimes add to the mystery. Again, online resources and books can help you to identify a particular uniform from similar photographs. If the photograph is clear enough, look for any medals the individual might be wearing.
If you can identify a particular medal, you should be able to narrow down the time frame. While some photographs might offer nothing in this regard if your photograph depicts a group of people standing in a field you may not have much luck!
If you can tell what town or village the photograph was taken in, see if you can identify buildings which you know were either built or demolished at particular times to narrow down a date range. You can also look at the de of vehicles and their plates, which may indicate the period in which a car or motorbike was produced. Advertisements and shop fronts are also useful as it can be fairly easy to ascertain when a certain product was launched and discontinued. These seemingly small details may provide a vital clue that draws your research together!
Sitting down with somebody and giving them time to reminisce over a photograph may be the most fruitful thing you can do. Ask them if they recognise faces, fashions or locations depicted in the photograph. This is when a key piece of information might pop out of their memory which could solve the puzzle. As photography developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, different kinds of formats rose and fell in popularity.
Therefore identifying the type of format can help you to narrow down when the photograph was taken. First look at how the image is surrounded and housed. If it is in a protective case, this may suggest it is a daguerreotype or ambrotype, and so was probably taken before the s.
If it is mounted on a thick card, it could be a carte de visite or cabinet card which date from the s and If there is a pair of photographs mounted next to each other on a card, then it is most probably a stereoscopic photograph dated between the s and s. If it looks like a postcard, it is more likely to have been taken after Throughout history, a great variety of materials have been used to print or lay the image of a photograph on.
Identifying these materials can be extremely helpful in ascertaining the process and therefore narrowing down the date range. Metal was used on very early processes like daguerreotypes or tintypes. Daguerreotypes are one of the first photographic processes invented in and were common until the s. They are made on a silver-plated copper support and have a distinct, highly reflective mirror-like surface. Tintypes, made on a thin tin sheet, were introduced much later than the daguerreotypes and were common up until s. Glass is more common than metal. Glass lantern slides were introduced as early as the s and were used through to the middle of the 20th century.
Ambrotypes, housed in a case like daguerreotypes, were common from until the s. The glass support gives a 3-D appearance to the image but is not highly reflective like in daguerreotypes. Early negatives were also made on glass between s and Paper is the most common material used to print the image of a photograph on, and has been used throughout the history of the medium, from until today.
Plastic has been mainly used for negatives since the late 19th century. Colour slides were introduced in the s and are commonly found in family photographs. There are detailed guides available online to help you identify the different photographic processes.
Although colour tone can be a misleading tool with which to date photographs, if combined with other tips, it can be a helpful aid, especially for photographs on paper support. In general, warm image tones are found on photographs made from the s until the s.
Neutral black and white image tones are more commonly encountered on photographs made from the late s until the present day. A distinctive example is cyanotypes, commonly made from until the s, which can be distinguished by their deep blue colour. Using a light source to look at a photograph from many different angles may reveal useful information about the way it was made.
The very first photographs on paper, salted paper printsdo not have a reflective surface because they do not have an extra layer on top of the paper. With the introduction of albumen egg white in as a medium applied on the paper support to carry the image, the surface of photographs became glossier. After the s, additional layers, such as gelatine or collodion, completely covered the fibrous surface of the paper, making the surface of the photograph even glossier.
Photographs with matt surface came back into fashion in late s, but this was achieved by creating a bespoke rough surface pattern, rather than exposing the surface of the paper. Hand colouring, which is used in many 19th century photographs, can also easily be spotted, especially if a light source is used on a degree angle. If you have a magnifying glass or a small loupe, you can examine the surface of your photographs in more detail. Image deterioration such as fading and yellowing is common on the majority of 19th and 20th century photographs, especially those made on paper.
Salted paper prints often display fading on lighter areas of the image. Yellowing is frequently encountered on albumen prints sespecially around the edges. Another very common form of deterioration is silver mirroring, a reflective blue-tainted shine formed on the dark areas of the image. Although this can be present in all photographic processes, it can be more extensive on those made during the s. Finally, if you have a cased photograph, look for any green-brown marks, a of deterioration found only on daguerreotypesalso known as tarnishing.
While you may never reach a definitive date, piecing together the clues will enable you to find an estimated date range. It may take perseverance, but it will be worth it! We found a selection of photos of our family for sale on ebay when the photographic studio stock was cleared out — most from s when they had all sat for photos, but some of the children as babies and my grandmother as a 6 year Dating nineteenth century photographs, an 14 year old, and then as a young woman; she died age 83 in I have a polyfoto of photographs of my mother when very young — late s or s I think but no date on it just a code — PG I have no idea if its possible to date this she died recently but she is very young in the photos so suspect taken when she went to London to nurse in ish or wartime.
Photograph of a group containing a party who met with a fatal boating accident in Barmouth 1 August Catalogue ref: COPY 3. Consider uniforms and medals The presence of an individual in uniform can make the process of dating the photograph easier. Look at the background and other objects While some photographs might offer nothing in this regard if your photograph depicts a group of people standing in a field you may not have much luck! Look at Dating nineteenth century photographs format As photography developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, different kinds of formats rose and fell in popularity.
The Tichborne Claimant case extracted from J daguerreotype of Roger Tichborne in frameDating nineteenth century photographs
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19th Century Photo Types: A Breakdown to Help You Date Old Family Pictures