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Dating and Identifying Old Family Photos - Part 1

One of the joys of genealogy is connecting the names of your ancestors to their likeness. And the best way to do that is through old family photos.


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One of the joys of genealogy is connecting the names of your ancestors to their likeness. And the best way to do that is through old family photos. However, among those people in the photos

of relatives are some you'll recognize and others you don't. The first step in identifying these people is to date their pictures.

Sometimes photos have dates on the back, but more than likely they don't. So, like a forensic investigator, you'll need to use the clues in the photo to help date it. If you don't know the identity of the person in the photo, then you'll have to look carefully at how they're dressed and the environment in which they're posing.

Before 1900, the only way to get a photograph taken was to visit a photographer's studio and pose for it. Therefore, most photos during the second half of the 19th century—as far back as the 1860s when photography came into its own—appear as rigid poses with studio props and backdrops. So you'll have to look at the person's style of dress, their hair, their posture, and the way they're positioned in the frame. Then you'll have to turn the picture over and look at the name and address of the photographer on the back which may give you a clue as to the geographic location. You should also look at the shape of the card on which the photo appears. The more you work with old photos, the better you'll get at identifying the style of a particular period.

The earliest photographs were daguerreotypes which remained popular from the time of their invention in 1839 through the 1860s. A daguerreotype wasn't printed. Instead, it was an actual glass negative which had been treated to appear positive. For this reason, no duplicates or enlargements were possible. Often presented in a hinged leather casing, daguerreotypes had a silvery or gold appearance due to their reflective coating.

A more common type of early photograph was the ambrotype which remained popular until the 1880s. To make it easier to see this type of photograph, its back was either painted black or covered in black velvet. Many ambrotypes became carte de visite (visiting cards), popular from 1855 onwards. In the second half of the 19th century, people kept albums of these visiting card photographs on display. When visiting a friend or acquaintance, a visitor could leaf through an album to see who had called. In turn, the host expected the visitor to leave their card so that it could be included in their album.

From 1850 through the 1860s, carte de visite photos featured a full length image of the sitter, often in the staged surrounding of a drawing room with a leather-backed chair and table. The women of this period typically wore long, voluminous crinoline dresses with their hair pulled back tight in a bun and their ears covered or only partially exposed. The sleeves of their dresses started off close cut and then widened while the shoulders remained smooth and rounded.

Men wore their hair long and styled it with a perfumed oil called "macassar," causing it to lie flat on top and gather in curls or waves around the ears, and preferred bushy sideburns and beards. They also wore hats, but in their photographs, the hats often appeared on the table—the

taller the top hat, the earlier the picture. Men usually wore a long, dark frock coat, often unbuttoned to reveal a square-ended waistcoat, and either striped or checked light-colored trousers.

The corners of earlier cards are usually square or cropped instead of rounded. Cards from 1850 to 1865 feature a modest logo on the back displaying the photographer's name and address.

While photos from the 1860s usually showed a full-length figure, those of the 1870s featured a three-quarter length shot. The back of the visiting card displayed a larger, slightly more flamboyant logo than in the previous decade.

For women, bustles, folds, pleats and plenty of fabric came into vogue during the 1870s. Dresses featured fabric gathered and held at the back in a small, neatly wrapped bustle. They also wore a tight-fitting bodice known as a "cuirass" which buttoned from top to bottom and stretched down over their hips. Women often had their hair clipped away from their ears but allowed to grow long at the back where they piled it high, trailing a tail of platted hair tied with a bow, at the nape of their neck.

Men's hair styles became shorter, accompanied by generous sideburns, a moustache, and/or a beard. Most wore bowler hats with short crowns, as well as a matching three-piece suit, featuring a double-breasted vest with two sets of buttons and a roll collar which became popular in the mid-1870s.

NOTE: Tune in next month for the conclusion to dating and identifying old family photos.

Source Information: Everyday Genealogy, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2011.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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