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Dating and Identifying Old Family Photos - Part 2

Let's begin with the 1880s and continue to 1895 when George Eastman introduced the Pocket Kodak Camera and the whole concept of family photos changed. Then you'll learn how to identify the people in your photos and how to safely record the information.


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In last month's column, you learned how to date photos by the sitter's appearance through the 1870s. Let's begin with the 1880s and continue to 1895 when George Eastman introduced the Pocket Kodak Camera and the whole concept of family photos changed. Then you'll learn how to identify the people in your photos and how to safely record the information.

The 1880s offered women a chance to be a bit more liberated in their dress. Although bustles expanded in size, the fabric was less tightly drawn, giving them greater freedom of movement. Dresses of this period featured an inflated look with ballooning shoulders and decorated fabric on the sleeves and cuffs. The V-neck became popular, allowing women to show off a lacy blouse or necklace. If a sitter wore a bun, it appeared higher up, topped by a flamboyant hat, adorned with ostrich feathers, tilted forward at a rakish angle. Though fans were always a popular accessory, in the 1880s they appeared decorated with ostrich feathers.

By the 1890s, conservative dress came back into vogue. Women's dress styles returned to the fitted look of 1870s. They led more active lives, enjoying cycling, riding and tennis. Victorian women also began to enjoy white lace, and their pleated blouses often had lace trimming down the front. They wore their blouses loose fitting but drawn in at the waist with a belt.

Men appeared fresher and cleaner in the 1890s, with less facial hair, a side part, short sideburns and a trimmed moustache. Their jackets had deeper necks to them and were less restrictive. Though men still wore bowler hats, many preferred the popular straw boater hat, inspired by those worn by Italian sailors.

The neckline for men's vests became more open with a curved instead of a V-shaped opening.

Towards the end of the decade, pocket watch chains came into fashion for men. These formed a "W" shape as they looped across the stomach from one vest pocket to the other. Flared trousers also became popular, with the fashion conscious often sporting tight fitting trousers that flared at the ankle to reveal the latest patent leather buttoned shoes. Bowler hats likewise became taller and developed a curve to their sides.

When young children appeared in late-19th-century photos, they usually wore sailor suits, a tradition which continued through the 1890s.

Visiting cards in the 1890s had rounded corners, and the back displayed more information about the photographer, including awards won.

The above fashion trends applied mostly to city folk. Those living in rural areas were often behind the times, as were older people who tended to wear whatever they had available.

Now that you have sorted out the time periods of your family photos, it's time to begin identifying the people in them. Rarely will you find old photos with captions, unless someone has taken the time to write them below the photos. Newer photos often have some information that identifies the people in the them.

Is identifying a person by name enough? Not really. You must also figure out how they're related to the rest of your family. Or are they just a friend of the person who took the photo. Start by showing the photos to the oldest member of your family on the side of the family represented in the photos.

After you find out who's in the photos, be careful when writing information on them. Write lightly only on the back using a soft pencil. Or write below the photo if it's stored in an album or affix a small label to the back of it, writing on the label before you apply it. Above all, do NOT use a ballpoint pen, even on the label applied to the back. If the photos aren't in an album, but instead are stacked one on top of another, the ink may transfer to the surface of the photo below it. Also, don't use a felt-tipped pen or Sharpie® marker because the ink may soak through the paper, leaving a mark on the photo's surface.

If you decide to arrange your family photos in albums, be sure to use a way of attaching them that will not affect the photo. People used to use small, gum-backed paper "corners" to affix photos in their albums. Today, you'll find acid-free, self-adhesive photo corners in office supply stores.

Another way of storing old photos is in archival boxes. You'll find these for sale at office supply stores and online at sites like ( Special boxes, designed for storing photos, come with dividers which let you arrange them by category or date. You may also want to buy large plastic bins which have tops that seal tight in which to store your photo albums. To make sure they stay dry, drop in a bunch of silicone drying agent packets like the type found in containers of medications. Or you can buy packets online at (

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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