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
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
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
- 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
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
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.
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
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.