Identifying an Era: 5 Ways to Date Family Photos

Identifying an Era: 5 Ways to Date Family Photos

Do you need help identifying old family photos? Whether you’ve inherited your grandmother’s collection of photo albums and the time periods are a mystery to you, seek answers to questions about family lineage, or otherwise require assistance uncovering the past; with a little time and research, you’ll soon be on your way to photo identification!

Strategy #1: Ask!

Sit down with family members and collect as much information and history as you can. Perhaps your mother remembers a certain person in a photo, or your big brother recalls why you traveled to Delaware in 1964. Even if you must exchange emails or phone calls, always seek knowledge from the source! Don’t forget those more distant relatives, friends, or co-workers as a part of the process of preserving your family photos.


Strategy #2: Identify the Photograph Type

Different time periods used different printing methods – and many of them are quite easy to identify. Daguerreotype, for example, often have a reflective or mirror-like quality and were produced from 1839 to 1860.

Ambrotypes followed the Daguerreotype. They were widely produced for only about 10 years, so if your antique photo is Ambrotype, you have a smaller window of mystery to work with.

Tintype, Carte de Visite, and Cabinet Card followed in the 19th century production of photographs. Once you’re familiar with the markers of these 5 types of antique prints, photo identification will be much quicker. For more information visit this article about identifying types of photographs.


Strategy #3: Study the Fashion Sense

Put your fashion sense into practice! When we see a flapper style hat, or big bangs and hairspray, we immediately pinpoint the decade. Just like we can easily identify the era of a 20th century photo by the clothing and hairstyles, the same is true for the 19th century and before.

Resources like western fashion trends by decade can help. Once you become adept at spotting telling fashion aspects in a print, dating an antique photo becomes much easier.

dating vintage photo

Fashion can tell you a lot about when a photo was captured.


Strategy #4: Observe Architecture and Design

Just like with fashion, architecture and interior design tells us a lot about a photo. When we see a lot of mauve and duck wallpaper borders, no one needs to tell us that we’re looking at early 1990’s décor. Background details in a photo can tell us so much, whether it’s ten years old, or a hundred. This blogger identified an old family photo from 1903, in part, by researching the architectural details on the porch in the background of the photo. The story is in the details!


Strategy #5: Learn and Grow!

It may seem overwhelming at first, but anyone who’s ever been bitten by the genealogy bug knows just how exciting and fun researching family history can be. There is a wealth of information found online today for helping you become your family’s resident expert in photo dating.

Once you’ve gained a bit of knowledge, your friends and family will be impressed and appreciative of your new skill. You may even encourage relatives to bring old photos to the next reunion so you can pass on your expertise.

It’s can be an arduous effort at times, even if you enjoy it. Save the next generation the detective work by saving, digitizing, and organizing your photos today.

Need help getting organized? That’s what we’re here for. Review our digital organizing services for an idea of how we can lift some of the burden off your shoulders.

Posted in: Family History and Genealogy, Photo Projects

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  1. Janet Barclay September 27, 2016

    These are great tips – I got excited just reading them! Now I want to dig out the old box of family photos and look at them more closely.


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