Dating old photographs

There are many ways of dating old photos. Most can offer clues to narrow down the dates. Some are more accurate than others.

By the late 1870’s America had gone through the devastation of the Civil War. Then America and the world went through a long depression, the Panic of 1873 that lasted until 1879. Was it any wonder people in photos had such ominous expressions? The 1890’s brought about the era of the Gay 90’s. Good for some but not all. Good for the wealthy who were the ones mainly using the new photographic technologies. Photos took on a new look, not always the rigid look of the studio photos. People smiled, took silly photos and vacation photos. Event photos were no longer only taken by professional photographers with massive equipment! Fathers, mothers and children could take photos, if they could afford it! However, if not for the interest and money spent by the wealthy, the costs and technologies would not have made photography available to the masses by the early 1900’s. So, this offers a major clue to photo dating. If the early photos have a more natural look, smiling faces and family events, most likely they were taken post 1890’s.

The carte de visite (CDV) at 2.25×4, was popular from the 1860’s to the late 1870’s. Its thin photographic paper required it to be mounted on cardboard to prevent curling. For dating purposes, they had a relatively short ten year period. Some photographers used them for a longer period to use up old stock, but once their popularity waned, most photographers and customers switched to the cabinet card. At 4.5×6.75, the cabinet card quickly became popular. Like the CDV, they were albumen prints, made by coating the photo paper with a mixture of

egg whites and other chemicals. As they aged they produced a yellow-brownish tint which many people confuse with sepia tones. Starting in the mid 1860s cabinet cards rapidly replaced CDV’s and lasted into the late 1920’s, a long time for a process. However, dating is made easier due to the constant changing styles on the cabinet cards. Board thicknesses, corners, and board edges, gilding on board edges, and photo studio logo styles and gilding usually changed every year or two. Some carry over but this is still a pretty accurate way to date these images.

Early in the 1900’s, with improvements in technologies and materials, photos were being enlarged and mounted on different sized boards. The new photo papers were now being coated with collodion or gelatin instead of albumen as the binder for silver nitrate, the light sensitive ingredient. The new papers aged much better and produced sharper images and much less yellowing. Also, the papers were able to produce truer blacks and whites. Dating is similar to the CDV’s and cabinet cards. Mounting board and paper thicknesses, imprinted styles, the move from limited photo sizes to larger photos and mounts help limit the year search. Much is available online and in books showing examples of the changes for more accurate dating.

Kodak’s introduction of the box and folding cameras of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s brought about snapshot photographs. Photographic paper by 1905 was thicker and no longer needed to be mounted. Prints came in various sizes depending on the negative size and the size of the equipment used in the contact printing. Most had an eight-inch white border. WW1 had a major impact on snapshot photography. Much like the Civil War, photos provided a contact between families and loved ones. Many clues exist to assist with dating early snapshot photos. Photos no longer needed to be mounted. The first snapshots were on matte photo papers. Glossy papers, introduced in 1915 and becoming popular in the 1920’s, are another good indicator. World War 1 lasted from 1914 through 1918 so photos from the war can be dated to a 5 or 6-year period.

The 1920’s brought a period of prosperity and excitement for many. Photo processes, papers, chemicals and cameras greatly improved and prices came way down. Most families had cameras. Dating photos from the 1920’s is mainly a question of clothing and lifestyles. Snapshots of schools, family outings and family life were informal and carefree. The world was a happy place! Happy, at least until October 29, 1929. Black Tuesday. The stock market crash.

There were few things for most families to be happy about in the 1930’s. Photo studios took a major hit as they were a luxury few could afford. Amateur photography and snapshots did supply some relief and did remain popular. Although not many improvements to technology or cameras emerged during this period, a few dating clues can be found. By the mid 1930’s glossy prints had pretty much taken over, with the exception of studio prints. Also notable are artistic art deco styles around the prints and special cut borders called deckle edges. Deckle edges were rough cut in a style like the old cabinet cards. Art deco styles lasted through the 1940’s and deckle edges were still popular into the fifties.

Dating photos is playing detective. The process is fun but can be tedious. First locate the obvious clues: clothing, autos, locations, known relative ages. Keep in mind with things like clothing and autos, the photo could not be prior to when clothing and autos were introduced. However, the photos could have been taken at a later date. Then look for photo styles and sizes, as well as photo papers that correspond to their use periods. And don’t forget product age identification. I have a cabinet card of my wife’s great grandfather at work on a lunch break. A Blatz beer bottle is on the table. With a high resolution scan, I isolated the beer bottle and researched it online. The bottle had a glass stopper and the label was clear in the photo.

With research, I was able to determine that bottle style was only used for a two year period. So, it was easy to narrow the year of the cabinet card down to two years.