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Follow the Clues — Dating Your Photographs

by Maureen Taylor
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When Was That, Again?
Photographs are one of our most valuable tools, especially when they document important family events. However, their genealogical value isn't always considered at the time they are taken. Find out from Maureen Taylor how to date a photo from clues in the photo itself when a date hasn't been recorded.

Is it possible to determine whether a photograph was taken in the last years of the nineteenth century or the first few years of the twentieth century? You bet! Dating a photograph requires you to use your best genealogical research techniques, but it can be done. You need to research every photographic clue and follow the leads to uncover the truth that is usually hidden in the elements of the photograph. The date is in the details.

Photographs offer many clues about ancestral lives, if you know what to look for. First, sharpen your observation skills. Then, using a magnifying glass, sweep across the image making notes of any details. For instance, in a portrait, pay attention to accessories and props. Look for signage and architectural details in an exterior photograph. In addition, clothing, photographer's imprints and even the photographic technique can help you place the photograph in a timeframe. Since few people can identify all clues in the picture, assigning a date will probably require a trip to the reference department of a large public or academic library. But to get you started, here are seven tips for dating a photograph, using 1900 as an example.

1. Internal Details

Internal details are the little things that we take for granted in most pictures — the objects in the image. In exterior scenes, are there cars, sports equipment, or signs present? If so, you can begin to date the photograph to the turn of the century by researching the types of items people used during that time period. For instance, if there are cars in the photograph it might be one of the first ones manufactured in the new century: The Marlboro or a Waverly Electric runabout. The Marlboro was first introduced in 1900 by the Marlboro Automobile and Carriage Company of Marlboro, Massachusetts. The Waverly Electric model 18 Piano-Box style car was only available from 1898-1901. Also look for advertising. An address with a sign enables you to use city directories to research when a business was at a particular location.

The same methods apply to interior photographs. There may be products or household fashions visible in the image. You can research these trends at library using reference books and old magazines to provide yourself with a span of possible dates for the picture. Look particularly at the drapery styles and room accessories present in the photograph.

2. Obvious Clues

There are a number of distinct items in a photograph that can supply a date. For instance, a calendar present in the image can assign a month and year to the scene. If the year is unclear you can use a perpetual calendar to track down possible years. The existence of a postmark on the back of a photographic postcard is another unambiguous indication of the date of an image. Another apparent clue is a handwritten note on the back of the image with a year. However, don't rely completely on this information, as it could have been erroneously written on the back by later relatives who thought they knew the date.

3.National and International Events

By using a timeline or chronological encyclopedia of events it is possible to assign a year to an image of a national or international historical event. 1900 had several notable occurrences that may or may not be represented in your photograph collection. You can piece together your family's role in history by learning stories about ancestral exploits and using photographs as evidence.

  • Politics: President William McKinley was reelected President with Teddy Roosevelt. McKinley ran against William Jennings Bryan and Eugene Debs (on the Socialist ticket). Any campaign buttons or other election paraphernalia can indicate the image date as 1900.

  • Sports: The second Olympic Games was held in Paris in 1900 with fifty-five Americans competing in the events. Did any of your relatives participate or attend? The evidence might be present in one of your family photos. Also think about other types of sports that interested your relatives. For instance, Dwight F. Davis and Holcombe War won the International Lawn Tennis Challenge Trophy in 1900.

  • Work: Occupational photographs can be found in family collections and their content can help with the dating process. You can often put a date to uniforms, badges, and equipment present in the images. Labor issues surfaced in 1900 in Pennsylvania's coal fields when over 100,000 workers went on strike. Reexamine photographs for content related to employment.

4. Local Events

Just as national and international news items appear in family images through our ancestors' participation in them, local events usually figure prominently in turn-of-the-century collections. Be on the lookout for the following:

  • Weather: Outdoor scenes may provide you with seasonal information and local weather conditions for the photographs you are trying to date. Blizzards, hurricanes and other weather phenomena are usually noted in local papers and often appear in family images. Northern families posed their children next to snowdrifts in major storms as a yardstick of their age and the amount of snow. Hurricane damage to homes and photographs of the devastation can also be found in family collections.
  • News items: Was your ancestor in attendance at a groundbreaking ceremony for a new building in town? You may not be able to immediately identify what is happening in the photograph, but rely on other evidence in the image to assign a timeframe, and then consult a local history or the newspaper to see what important things happened in the town in those years.

5.Costume

Clothing provides one of the most specific ways to accurately date an image. Women's fashions changed quite often and even the poorest women made attempts to keep up with the latest trends. In order to accurately date a photograph based on clothing, it is important to compare your photograph with others taken around the same time. Consulting pictorial histories of the period can help you do that. The year 1900 featured many types of clothing details, so look for these clues when examining your family photographs:

  • Women: Fashionable women in 1900 dressed in slim skirts that flared out below the knees, with bodices featuring tight sleeves that flared over the hand. Their accessories included round brooches, watches, small earrings and combs to hold their hair back in a bun.

  • Men: Gentlemen wore coats that had a narrow shape, with white shirts and high stiff collars. Accessories included a black bow tie or a narrow tie. They wore their hair short with large mustaches.

  • Children: While they were toddlers, boys and girls wore similar clothing, usually a type of dress. As they grew older, their clothing mimicked what adults wore except that girls' skirts and boys' pants were shorter.

  • Military: Examine photographs for uniforms, insignia and medals. Foreign family members may have participated in the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion, or the insurrection in the Philippines in 1900.

  • Organizational Images: If you have a photograph of a relative in an unusual costume it could be a clue to their membership in a fraternal organization or musical society.

  • Sports: Sports uniforms and equipment look different in older family photographs than it does today, so research the clothing styles and other details can help you pinpoint a time. Also, the uniforms may represent a team no longer in existence. There can be other obvious dating clues — for instance, college uniforms often included the current year on them.

6. Photographer's Imprint

If your photograph contains the name of the photographer, one of the first things you want to do is research when they were in business. You might be surprised to find that a particular photographer was only in business for a few years. Find the working dates for them by consulting city directories, local historical societies or published directories of photographers.

7. Family Events

As you begin to ask questions about your photographs, don't forget that the most important information can be found by talking with relatives and looking at your family history. Our ancestors documented important events in their lives with photographs. Graduations, weddings, christenings, first communions, and even formal birthday portraits can be found in family collections. What was happening in your family in 1900?

Family photographs are fascinating in the enlightening amount of history and detail they contain. When dating an image, bear in mind that it takes several pieces of information to assign a date, and one definite piece of data is not enough. This becomes essential when trying to work with an image that is a copy of an earlier photograph or a picture in which the costume clues imply one timeframe but the genealogical information suggests another. Always remember that it is the sum total of the details that decide on a date.


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