Are you lucky enough to have really old family photos floating around? These treasures of your family story, or family history, are priceless. If they aren’t already dated, there are a few clues and tips you can use to approximate a date. Dating photos can sometimes even help you figure out who is in the photo. So if you have a gem or two but don’t have dates, here are some helps on dating nineteenth century photos– and preserving them, too.
Dating Photos by Knowing Photograph Types
The photography process was perfected and made commercially available around 1837. During the first 50 or 60 years of photography, photos looked very different– very different from each other, and definitely very different than they look today. Identifying the TYPE of photograph you have can give you an excellent clue into the date it was taken, which in turn can give you other clues and information about the photo. You can find more detailed information at PhotoTree, but I’ll outline the basics here to help you identify 19th century family photos. (photo cred: my father-in-law, from his own family history!)
The earliest photos were daguerrotypes. Images were printed on mirror-polished, silver-plated copper. The image was sharp and shiny and appeared to be floating. It was only viewable at an angle, a little bit like a negative. Daguerrotypes are always encased as there are many layers– including a mat and glass –to create this type of photo, which is essentially a mirror with an image on it. The average size for a daguerrotype was 2 5/8″ x 3 1/4″. Daguerrotypes first appeared in 1839 and were most popular between 1842-1856. By about 1860, they were no longer in use.
Ambrotypes were a great improvement over daguerrotypes because they didn’t have to be viewed at an angle, and they didn’t tarnish, either. The images were simply easier to see. Ambrotypes were sharp images on silvered glass and appeared to have a kind of depth to them, but they could be easily smudged by touching or cleaning. Like a daguerrotype, the average size for an ambrotype was 2 5/8″ x 3 1/4″. The shortest-lived type of photograph, ambrotypes first appeared in 1854 and were most popular between 1855-1861. By about 1865, they were no longer in use.
If you’ve got an old family photo that you can attach a magnet to, you’ve got a tintype. With a tintype, images were made on a blackened iron plate– a thin sheet of iron. Some tintypes were encased in paper sleeves, but many of those sleeves have not survived time. Tintypes were a very popular type of photograph because the price of photographs was dropping and people could afford to have more photos taken. Many Civil War era photos are tintypes. Tintypes (which aren’t actually tin) first appeared in 1856 and were most popular between 1860-1870. Around 1870, tintypes were also available in “chocolate,” a distinctive brown hue. Although they fell out of general popularity by about 1878, tintypes were still produced well past 1900 because they were used as novelty items at fairs, carnivals, and beach resorts.
Carte de Visites (CDVs)
Carte de visites or CDVs were the first type of photos to be developed from a negative. Images were first printed on thin paper and then attached to a stiff card stock paper. The carte de visite changed photography! Prices were still coming down, so photography was more accessible, but in addition, CDVs were the first opportunity people had to order multiple copies of one photo. Prior to the carte de visite, one image could be printed once– on a mirror, on glass, or on iron. With the creation of a negative, it was now possible to get multiple copies to share. Carte de visites ushered in the family photo album, too! Thinner pictures and more of them meant you could collect pictures of family members.
If you’re trying to identify this type of photo, look for a border around the edges and studio background and props. Most CDVs are a sepia tone. Carte de visites first appeared in 1859 and were most popular between 1860-1880. By the 1890s, they were not used as much.
The cabinet card enjoyed as much longevity as the carte de visite, but cabinet cards are distinguishable by their bigger size and by artwork and print right on the card. The print is often the name of the photographer or the location, which can help in dating the photo. By the 1880s, the quality of cameras and papers for printing had improved, and many cabinet cards of the 1880s and 1890s look like artwork. Some even have scalloped edges. Cabinet cards first appeared in 1866 and were most popular between 1874-1900. Their popularity waned in the early 1900s.
Preserving Old Photos
Once you learn the type of photo you’re looking at, you can narrow down or approximate a date. Making a digital version of treasures like this is a great way to preserve it for the future. Scanning is a common method of preserving a photo because it creates the sharpest and clearest image, but taking a picture of your old photo is another option. For a 4×6 size photo, scanning at 300 dpi is common, but if you want to enlarge the photo, or if the original is smaller than 4×6, scanning at 600 dpi (or even 1200 dpi) is recommended. Scanners are readily available these days as part of an all-in-one printer, but if you don’t have a scanner, your local photo processing store (Walgreens, Target, Walmart, etc.) often has scanners available to use right there at the store.
Once your old photos are scanned, use them– share them. Having a digital copy is good, but having a hard copy that you can see and enjoy is so much better! Telling a family history or family story in a storybook like I’ve done here is a great way to share, and knowing family stories has so many rewards! Family stories help us know we belong. Knowing how our ancestors overcame their own hard times gives us courage and strength to overcome our own.
Storybooks aren’t the only way to share the old family photos you’ve preserved. One of my personal favorites is this family tree canvas. It helps put names with faces in a simple and beautiful way.
Whatever your method, be sure to display these family treasures in a high-quality, meaningful way.
- PhotoTree.com. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.phototree.com/identify.htm
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