From the office: 10 tips for dating old photographs

By Editor, 12 December 2013 - 12:25pm

Sarah Williams offers tips on dating old photographs

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Sarah Williams, editor
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We received a Christmas card from the Llewellyn-Bowen family this week, Laurence, his wife and two daughters dressed up in a 1920s jazz style. It made me think of our feature on postcards in our Christmas issue written by photo dating expert Jayne Shrimpton that included a Christmas postcard from her collection. This card, sent from the Sudan in 1941, features a photograph of a soldier inserted into a festive mount. 
We associate postcards now with holiday scenes, but in the first half of the 20th century they were also commonly used as mounts for personal photographs. 
We find some of the most common queries from readers are to do with photo dating. Boxes of old photographs can sometimes come down the family with no indication of who the sitters are. With a date, you can narrow the field of possible suspects and even, sometimes put a name to a face as it stares back at you from the past:
1) Look at the format. If the photograph is on a post card mount, then it won’t date before 1902. Understanding the history to cartes de visite (CDV) and cabinet cards will also help you narrow down a timeframe. There are plenty of websites that can guide you.
2) Size matters. Just as with format, sizes for prints changed over time. Again, look online to find guides on sizes of photographic prints.
3) Research the photography studio. Many CDVs include the name of the photography studio. Although usually long gone, you may be able to find them listed in directories. There are also websites that collect details of photographers. Try as an example.
4) Look at women’s sleeves. For the 19th century, sleeves can be quite a good starting point. Again, look online for different sleeve shapes through the ages and try to find ones that match those in the photograph.
5) Look at dress length. For the 20th century, dress length can be quite revealing. Always judge by the younger women in the photograph if possible. Older women are much more likely to be conservative and still be wearing a favourite dress from ten years ago!
6) Look at hairdos. This can be difficult as there were whole decades of the 19th century when women had a centre parting but when a new fashion comes in with hairstyle it is quicker for people to update than clothing.
7) Look at men’s neckware. Of course, it is worth looking at everything that the men in the photograph are wearing but how you tied your cravat or the shape of your collar was something that was cheaper and easier to update than a whole suit, so more likely to reflect the date of the photograph.
8) Get military advice. Dating military photographs can often lead to relatively precise results and this is when people with expert knowledge really come into their own. The National Army Museum runs regular photo dating sessions and there will be military photo daters at this year’s Who Do You Think You Are? Live event at Olympia in February. It’s also worth posting images on specialist forums such as Victorian Wars, the Great War forum or our own WDYTYA? Forum
9) Share the photograph with your family. You never know, another family member might have a named photograph in their collection that matches one of the sitters.
10) Look at the back.  This might seem obvious, but if a photograph is stuck in an old album or framed up on the wall, it may be that nobody has looked on the back for years. Always be very careful when removing a photograph that has been stuck into an album. Again, there’s lots of advice online (I particularly like the idea of using dental floss behind the photo and a gentle sawing action).
If you've got other tips on photo dating that you'd like to share, then post your comments below. Good luck and happy hunting!
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