How to Date Old Photographs

Most family historians have THAT box, the one brimming with old family photographs. You know it’s there — in the back of the linen closet keeping company with a pair of phone books and a few regal-looking photo albums, the ones with the magnetic pages and gold-stamped covers.

In times of great pause like these, the box calls to you. Maybe you inherited it from a grandparent, or assembled it yourself as one of those I’ll-save-it-for-later types of projects. There’s something about that box that guilts us — all those fading color photographs, Polaroids, black-and-white photos, or even cabinet cards and tintypes. So much family history is there… and on the verge of disappearing into the void of vanishing memories.

Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Projects like sorting that box and chronicling all that family history get pushed off — for when we have more time or energy. But we never seem to have both time and energy. That’s the reason those before us didn’t take the time to identify the people and places in the photographs. There will always be something else calling for our time and attention. And then we feel guilty when we don’t get to that box of family history.

Not long after I took up genealogy as a hobby, I began inheriting boxes of old photographs, the save-it-for-later projects of past generations. I peeled off the lids of the boxes and stared into lost worlds and forgotten faces. Some seemed familiar, others not at all. I wanted to figure out who they were and what they did, but:

As a family historian and genealogist, how do you identify the people and places in old photographs?

As a first step, or when all else fails, start by dating the photograph.

1. Start by Dating the Most Recent Photos

Sure, the photographs from the latter half of the 20th century are the easiest to identify. Most times, you might know the subject. If you don’t, bell-bottoms or dark wall paneling will always scream the 1970s . . . and a well-placed beehive will strongly suggest the decade before that. Those are the easy hints.

After you have an approximate date, it’s fairly simple to figure out that you’re staring at your second-cousin, or Uncle Freddy as a kid, or maybe you’ve uncovered that long-lost great-aunt no one has mentioned since Thanksgiving 1981.

2. Find People You Know, From Long Ago

Moving back in time, you hit the black-and-white photographs next. Some have dates printed along their white borders; others have their dates stamped on the back. It’s usually pretty easy to pick out grandparents as parents and parents as children. You might even be able to identify great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, if not on sight, then by context.

3. What To Do With the Rest?

After that, you get to the most interesting photos — the tintypes, the cabinet cards, and the carte-de-visite ( CDV) photographs. These are the photographs you wish you had brought to your grandparents when they were still around to see them. Sometimes, you can pick out family resemblances and these provide valuable hints. Once in a while, you get really lucky and someone, long ago, labeled the photographs for posterity. That usually doesn’t happen.

When I First Tackled My Stack of Tintype Photographs

Years ago, I got a stack of tintypes from an aunt, who had gotten them from my grandmother 20 years earlier. My aunt had no idea who they were, and the short, ancient string that had long kept them together wasn’t talking either. At the time, I knew they were old — probably 19th century, but I didn’t really know how to figure out any names, or even places.

At that point, I knew enough family history to know that a branch of the family had come to Lowell, Massachusetts in 1869 from Manchester, England. I also knew that tintypes spanned a fairly wide range of years, from 1852 to about 1905. So, I knew that the photograph could be either English or American and that the woman could be an ancestor from any one of three generations.

That didn’t go far in helping me identify her.

I looked for more clues. The photograph, like lots of others in the 19th century, was obviously taken in a studio — the odd tree-trunk-looking thing and the landscape backdrop weren’t going to fool me. But, tintypes don’t carry photographers’ marks.

I guessed the woman’s age to be between 30 and 35, and she appeared to be wearing a ring on her right hand, along with a bracelet, necklace, and earrings. With a range of 1852–1905 for the photograph, though, I still needed more clues to determine her identity. Enter fashion analysis.

Using Clothing to Date Photographs

It’s pretty easy to date photographs from the late 20th century. All you’ve got to do is study what people are wearing, or how they’ve fixed their hair.

These same clues exist in 19th-century photos too — if you know what to look for. The woman in my tintype photo wears a dress with a pattern known as windowpane check, common at different points throughout the 19th century. So, that’s not super useful in dating the photo. However, in the 1800s, the style of women’s sleeves changed every few years. Sleeves are the place to look when dating photos with female ancestors.

In my tintype, the sleeves suggest a date of or before 1890. The tight sleeves begin precisely at the shoulder’s tip. They also have none of the exaggerated fullness that the rather well-remembered leg-of-mutton sleeves would have later in the 1890s.

Look at the hair too. The woman’s hair also indicates the late 1880s. The bangs aren’t cut short or styled in the large curls popular earlier in the decade. Instead, she wears her bangs in a style more common right around 1890.

So, a quick study of fashion — with some help from a good reference book or even some search engine sleuthing — can get me to a guess of, say, 1890, or so.

But, what if she wasn’t so well-to-do, and if her dress or hair was just out of fashion at the time of the photograph? We still see those radar-dish haircuts from the early 1990s even today, right?

I needed a little more confirmation before I set about looking for women born around 1855 in my family tree.

Look for Other Clues Hidden in Old Photographs

I looked at other photographs, and came across this one, in a different box. I recognized the background immediately — the bridge, the mountains. And, that same shaggy carpet on the studio’s floor.

I put the two photographs next to each other. I had a match. Both photographs shared a background and probably came from the same studio.

They might have even been taken on the same day. If you look very closely at the first photograph, above, you’ll notice, in the extreme lower-right corner, the same chair that the child in the photograph sits on.

The photographer didn’t move it completely out of the picture.

So, the woman from 1888 possibly had a two-year-old child. That’s a valuable clue when you’re staring at old photos and a family tree.

But, where was the photograph taken?

I still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the photograph had been taken — a key clue in identifying who these people were. From what I knew about this branch of the family, the most likely choices were Lowell, Massachusetts or Manchester, England. Of course, there was a chance that the photograph could’ve been taken somewhere else entirely.

That’s when I found this carte-de-visite (CDV) photograph. Do you recognize the background? I did too. That’s a different child, but the same chair. This game of matching was paying off.

Putting All the Clues Together

On the back of the CDV, I found the photographer’s mark, which you can use to date a photograph too. Armed with a set of city directories, I figured out that the photographer, Napoleon Loupret, was at that 51 Central Street address in Lowell, Massachusetts from 1885 to 1893.

Bingo — I had a probable date (1888 or so) and a city (Lowell, Massachusetts). I also knew that I had a family — a woman, who was about 30, who had at least two children, born sometime between 1882 and 1890. I was now ready to search my family tree for likely matches.

Photos Add Life to that Dusty Old Family Tree

THAT box — with the old family photos — holds family history, stories of good times and bad, stories of ancestors we knew and ancestors they knew. Old family photographs add life to the dusty old dates and places recorded in those family tree charts we all have.

With a little bit of sleuthing, and some luck, you can crack open that box of old photographs and reclaim the family history that’s locked in those black-and-white or sepia images.

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Adapted from, published on February 17, 2012.

Writer / Photographer / Linguist / MBA

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