This guest blog post is by Maureen Taylor, an internationally recognized expert on photo dating and interpretation. You can find her online at https://maureentaylor.com
I have boxes of photographs and I bet you do too. Our relatives hand them to us because we are the family genealogists. It's our responsibility to pass this legacy on to the next generation. Each and every one of those images tells part of the story of our ancestors. The elements of the tale are in the picture details and our genealogy.
Here's an introduction to studying your pictures.
A photo mystery is a family history mystery too. In order to solve an unidentified picture, start with your genealogy. A direct descent chart will only take you so far. Photos get inherited in a non-linear fashion. It could be the oldest, the youngest, or a distant cousin. Those images may represent your mother's side of the family or include pictures of your father's grandfather's cousins. To understand your pictures research as many ancestors as possible so that you know where they lived as well as their birth and death dates. You'll need this information to narrow down the possibilities.
Once you take out boxes and albums of pictures, look closely at each one and try to name the photographic format. It could provide you with a shortcut to a date range. The earliest type of photographic image, the daguerreotype, was on a shiny reflective metal surface. They actually need to be held at a 45 degree angle in order to view the image. It was in vogue for a brief period from circa 1840 to circa 1865. Compare that to the longevity of another type of metal image--a tintype. Invented in 1856, those tin (actually iron) pictures remained popular into the twentieth century. Ambrotypes on glass and found in cases, date from 1854 to about 1870. Paper prints remain fashionable from the time of their introduction in the mid nineteenth century to the digital craze of today.
From the hats on their heads to the clues on the back, this picture tells a family story.
Photographer's employed devices to keep their sitters still or to add life to their pictures with backdrops, curtains, chairs and flowers. Our ancestors also used props to tell part of their life story. Perhaps your great uncle Harry brought a tool with him. Perhaps he invented it or it was part of his trade. In my grandparent's wedding photos, the studio used their wedding rings as a prop, curling their hands over a balustrade to show off their new jewelry.
When little is known about a photo a good way to establish a time frame is to start with what's being worn. There are characteristics of a person's dress that specifically date an image and facets that reveal place of origin. Pay attention to every facet of style from head to toe. Collars, cuffs, lapels and sleeve styles may place a picture in a decade or even date it to within a few years.
Clothing differences can be subtle or dramatic. Everyday clothing depended on your ancestor's country of origin and where they lived (city or countryside). Urban dwellers often wore current fashion popular in cities throughout Europe and the United States. Finding a photograph of an ancestor in interesting garb can reveal their origins and financial circumstances.
If a picture has a photographer's name embossed or printed on a picture, it's called an imprint. They can include just a name or whole addresses and cities of operation. Most photographers ordered preprinted cards. City directories and census records can help you outline work dates and addresses for the photographers that took ancestral pictures. If they moved often, their address could narrow the time frame significantly.
Turn it Over
Turning over pictures is a must. There are often clues on the back. Photos with postcard style backs date from after 1900, that's when the first real photo postcards were introduced while the particular stamp box design can further narrow the time frame. A revenue stamp on the back dates a picture to the Civil War years.
Putting it All Together
Each photo detail from hats to card styles is evidence worthy of study. They'll tell you when the people posed for a photo. Estimate how old they are then figure out who's in the right place and time. You may have solved a riddle. If you need help take advantage of the Find My Past First Friday special for my photo identification services. There is a 20% discount for FMP members.