How to Identify Antique Photographs
Identifying family photos can be frustrating, but not hopeless.
If you have ever been the happy recipient of a box full of antique family photographs, you may also have experienced the dismay of discovering some or all of them are not labeled with names. One of the most frustrating, yet potentially, exciting genealogical projects is that of identifying old photographs.
Many of us have sat and stared hopelessly at the old picture of some mysterious old gentleman or lady and wondered whether we should keep it or just toss the picture. One very important reason for keeping old pictures is that they have social and cultural value to historians even if they cannot be identified. For that reason, you should never discard old pictures. But how can you determine whose picture it is when anyone who might have known that person is dead?
The photo to the left is one of my ancestral aunts, Ammarette Coskrey. My grandma, Retta Kinsey Mullins, was named for her Aunt Rette, so the name was probably Amaretta. Aunt Rette (1878-1933) married Joseph Milton Smith 26 January 1907 in Lampasas County, Texas. Thank Goodness my grandma was still around to identify this photograph.
But many photos have surfaced since Grandma died, and that's how I came to study this fascinating subject. I am going to tell you how to use various techniques to determine the age and subject of old photographs so that you might hope to learn the identities of people in your antique photos.
One thing is very likely - if you have an old picture, the subject is possibly one of your ancestors. You may never determine who he or she is, but perhaps, years down the road, your son or daughter will meet another family historian who can identify that person. Bringing unidentified photographs to family gatherings is an excellent way to get exposure. Sometimes, others have studio or snapshot photos of the same person; theirs may have names, dates or other clues written on the back. At two separate family reunions, I have been able to identify a third great grandmother and a third great grandfather. It was a doubly exciting experience. Since the persons who brought the photographs were only distantly related to the subjects, they were happy to give them to me because of my closer relationship.
Examination of photographs can be divided into two distinct categories. The first is the observation of the physical composition and characteristics. Second is a study of the subjects themselves, their attire, their surroundings and their features. If you scrutinize your mystery photo with these items in mind, you will learn a great deal about it and, possibly, the subject's relationship to you.
Dating Photos by Observation of Physical Characteristics
Is your antique photograph made of glass, tin or paper?
Dating a photograph is important if you hope to determine the identity of the subject. The following examples and descriptions of photograph types and their dates of production can be helpful in narrowing down the possible time frame.
To the right is a photo of Gracy Treat (1831-1905) who married Jackson Andrew Wood (1816-1884) in Newton County, Arkansas in 1847. Gracy's father was Stephen Treat who was reputedly the model for Harold Bell Wright's book, "The Shepherd of the Hills," which was later made into a movie starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
Of your ancestors who lived beyond 1839, you can expect the possibility that they had some sort of photograph made of themselves. The very earliest type of photograph was the daguerreotype, named after its inventor, Louis J.M. Daguerre (1787-1850). In the United States, these were first made in 1839, and itinerant "operators" reached even the smallest towns by transporting their studios in the backs of wagons. In the 1840s, practically everyone in the country had an opportunity to be daguerreotyped, and it was the most enduring form of the early photographs. Daguerreotypes are negative mirror images of the subject made on thin copper and cannot be viewed except from an oblique angle. They are usually protected by glass in a satin or velvet-lined case that opens like a book. They were made from 1839 to 1860.
Calotypes, Talbotypes, and Ambrotypes
Around 1849, paper pictures were printed from a paper negative for a brief time. These were called calotypes or talbotypes, but their quality was so poor that few of these survive. Other rare forms of photographs were produced on glass. For a short time around 1850, ambrotypes were made by imaging a negative on glass backed by a dark surface. These were made until 1861. In 1851, the wet-colodion process was invented in England whereby a glass plate with a gelatin surface was used. Obviously, the fragility of glass photographs made them impractical, but it also meant that any of the survivors are now very valuable.
The tintype, though similar to the daguerreotype, is a positive photograph made directly on an iron plate. A thin sensitized film was then applied for protection. The process was patented in 1856, and they were made into the 1880s, possibly as late as 1890. The tintype can be viewed from any angle and though usually unframed. it was placed occasionally in small black boxes. Inexpensively and quickly done, they were "popular in Civil War army camps because the pictures could be sent home in letters. Although tintypes are positive prints, they, like daguerreotypes, are reverse or mirror images of the subjects." Any pictures framed in small black boxes should be carefully removed for examination. A quick look at the back will tell you if it is a daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype.
Cartes de visite and Cabinet Photographs
After 1860, most pictures were printed on paper, the oldest using a reddish-brown color on thin paper and mounted on multi-layered cardboard that has a smooth creamy surface. These older ones were called "cabinet photographs" and were three by five inches in size. "Cartes de visite" were two by three inches in size and so called because of their resemblance to a visiting card. They were made with a multi-lens camera taking four or five pictures in one shot and printed on a single sheet like modern day school pictures. They were popular throughout the world and commonly displayed in special albums. Although some were head and shoulder portraits, most were full-length standing poses. One value of these photographs is that the photographer generally printed his name and address or sometimes the city and state or the date on the back.
Edges, Borders, Paper Types and Colors
Styles and widths of printed borders on paper images or paper frames can offer helpful clues in dating photos. With a little research, you can find out the approximate dates when certain borders were commonly used. Comparing the probable date of your the photo to the suspected subject's life span can help to determine the likelihood of the photo being that person. Suppose your great grandfather was born in 1869. If your photo is of a young man, and the probable date of the photo is 1890 to 1895. If your great grandfather lived past this date range, keep him in mind as you continue to examine the photo for further clues.
Studio portraits of this period were usually in brown or sepia tones, printed on very thin paper and glued to heavy cardboard over the entire surface. Some have scalloped edges or rounded corners and are rectangular. Around the turn of the century, photographs began to be printed on heavier paper, making it no longer necessary to glue them to cardboard. Often, they were framed with a mat and enclosed in folders with tissue paper to protect the picture. In the 1920s, matted photographs were enclosed in darkly colored heavy cardboard folders with backs that bent to make an easel. This was nice for displaying on parlor tables of pianos. Matted photographs in folders were still in use by the 1940s, but the folders were lighter in color and had softly furred edges.
After 1868, people had an option other than studio photographs when George Eastman introduced the first amateur camera. These cameras made 100 round pictures that were two and one half inches in diameter. By 1900, people were using cameras that took pictures measuring two and one quarter by three and one quarter inches. Brownish-red in color with a glossy finish, they had no border. Most snapshots had narrow white margins by 1915 with slightly brownish coloring. The white margins widened gradually over the years. By the time of World War II, they were nearly a quarter of an inch wide and often unevenly trimmed.
During the 1920s, young people went "Kodaking." The introduction of the miniature or "candid" camera brought very small pictures. The camera used 35 millimeter film with pictures being the same size as the negative. Although color film became available to amateurs in the 1930s, the quality was poor, and colors did not last long.
Amazingly, there is quite a bit of information compiled about early photographers. Several books have been written cataloging their names, locations, and places of operation at particular times. If your photo has the photographic studio and perhaps the town printed on it, these books can be invaluable in simplifying your efforts to date the photograph.
Early Photographers and Their Places of Operation - Use these great tools to make your task of dating easier.
Have You Had Successes With Identifying Old Photos?
I would like to know whether you have worked with old photos
Great Opportunities to Learn About Antique Photographs - Check out these books!
Dating by Study of Subjects, Their Attire and Surroundings
Take notes of the things you are learning about your mystery photograph.
Suppose you have a photo that is two and one-half by three and one-half inches mounted on a three by four inch board. You learned that this type of photograph was called a cartes de visite and that it was probably produced some time between 1854 and 1870. At this point you should be taking notes of your observations. Your notes could include the estimated age of the subject, the possible location where the photo was taken and any suspicions you may have about the identity of the subject. These notes could lead you to important conclusions and help you to decide who the subject might be. The next step in identifying your photo is to scrutinize the subjects and their surroundings.
The photo above is of Mary Ann Jacks (1822-1885) who was married to Thomas Laurance White (1821-1864) about 1843 probably in Natchitoches, Texas. Judging by her features, she is probably in her 70s, and this age would definitely correspond as expected with the style of her clothing and the likely date the photo was taken. This is an outdoor scene, obviously not a studio or professionally done photo. The formality of her dress, the likelihood that it was black, and the sad, drawn expression on her face led me to think the photo was taken at the death of a family member and probably at the cemetery. I checked the dates of death of her children, and sure enough, Sarah Ann (White) Jeffreys, her daughter, died in 1885. When I can determine Sarah Ann's exact date of death, and if it is prior to Mary Ann's own death on 24 May 1885, I will be able to safely surmise the above described circumstances of this photograph. The border of this photo was not common in the 1880s, so if you guessed that it is a reprint of an old photo, you would be correct.
Clothing and hair fashions, poses, backdrops, and backgrounds can be very revealing. Although a woman on the frontier could not be expected to have up-to-the-minute fashions, she was not too far behind the Paris designers. Godey's Lady's Book may have taken a little longer to reach the frontier woman, but when it arrived, she could draft a pattern and devise a stylish reproduction. Not all ladies were accomplished seamstresses - some bought from the Sears and Roebuck or Montgomery Ward catalogs. These three are excellent sources to use in comparing clothing styles in photographs.
It would not be unusual if the lady in a carte de visite was wearing a hoop skirt and crinoline. That style was popular in the early 1860s with women of all classes and ages wearing them. Also during this year, women revived the fashion of wearing black velvet around the throat with a gold locket or jewel pendant added for evening wear. Use a magnifying glass to get a closer look at your photograph. Creating a scanned image is an even better way to get a really good look. Maybe you own a brooch or stick pin whose original owner can be verified. If your subject is wearing gloves, can you see how many buttons they have? In the sixties, gloves with only one button were worn even with short sleeves, but by the seventies, gloves had two to six buttons. If the female subject of your photo is wearing a hoop skirt and the longer gloves, my guess is that she might be an older lady and that the photo was taken in about 1870. With the availability of stylish clothing, you might expect everyone to be dressed in vogue, but you will find exceptions. This is especially true of the elderly who tend to be less concerned with styles.
Bustles of all shapes and sizes were revived after 1870. Skirts were drawn tightly over the knees and gathered up in the back. This trend continued into the 1880s with gowns molding the figure. In the early part of the decade, and elastic cashmere fabric was used for a closer fit. The 1890s are remembered for the Victorian styles. Princess dresses were popular. Skirts became voluminous again with sleeves mimicking them. The shoulders received attention from deep lace collars with more laces and ribbons added. Fichus or triangular scarves were worn over the shoulders crossed and tied in front. Near the turn of the century. skirts were made of one color and material, and waists were made of another, usually white. Some sleeves were close-fitting with a large puff or cap at the top. All collars were worn high and decorated. The Victorian hairstyles became more elaborate, and young girls wore very large bows on the backs of their heads.
The style of clothing your subject is wearing could be an indication of his religious persuasion. Quakers and Shakers had their own distinctive styles. A Quaker gentleman in the 1840s wore a beaver hat similar to a top hat, but with a much wider brim. Quaker gentlemen were the last to abandon short breeches, which went out of vogue in the 1830s. If you have a daguerreotype of a man in a large-brimmed top hat who is wearing knee breeches. it would be safe to say that he was a Quaker and that the tintype was taken about 1840. Wouldn't a discovery like that be a wonderful lead to further research?
Just as they did not wear the latest fashions in clothing, the elderly tended to keep the same hairstyles and beard styles many years after styles changed. The 1860s hairstyles were modest to severe. The hair was pulled tightly back to the neck and worn in a "waterfall," or "chignon," as it is called today. The hair of the 1870s was plaited over pads in a chignon worn high upon the crown of the head, and hairpieces were commonly used. Properly dressed ladies always wore hats when they went out, so hats appear in many photographs. In the 1870s, bonnets and hats were very small and flat. If you have a subject who is wearing such a hat, and her skirt is cut in gores, the photograph was probably taken after 1870 when gores began to be used as an economic measure.
Body and Facial Features
The facial features and bodies of the subjects must be analyzed carefully. Look at the head shape, hair color, hair growth tendencies, hairline, ear shapes and sizes, thickness and length of eyebrows, length of neck, length of fingers, sloping shoulders or squared shoulders, and lanky or bulky body types. The list could be endless, and I'm sure you can make additions. Even the way a person poses for a photograph can be similar as they age. If you have photographs of two women who resemble each other, but appear to be different ages, compare the way that they hold their head or hands, whether they face the camera squarely or from an angle. It is possible that the two photos are the same person in youth and middle age. Keep in mind that the ears continue to grow as long as one lives. If you have been able to date the photographic styles of the two photos, this will help you decide whether or not they are the same person. Perhaps the dates of the photographs will suggest that the two women could be mother and daughter. The more people that are in a photograph, the more clues you have at your disposal.
The Victorian influence is seen in dress and behavior, but it is also evident in the elegant backdrops of the photographs of this time period. Earlier photographs might have no background at all or a simple chair and table. Some early "artists" may have used a circus tent with the subjects standing on the grass, but the backdrops of the 1880s and 1890s were elaborate. Some were woodland scenes with white picket fences, gates with climbing roses or very large rocks. Others were ornate parlors festooned with arches and columns framed with large ferns.
The backgrounds of snapshots are important. We have numerous snapshots taken by my grandma when she and her friends went kodaking in the early to mid-twenties. Some of them are of unusually large trees for southwest Texas. Upon showing the photos to my grandma's sister, we learned where the snapshots were taken. Other snapshots have oil derricks in the background, so we know that they were taken near the towns where my grandpa lived during the years he worked in the oil fields.
Contrasting with elegant settings are different types of photographs. Of more interest to men are military photos. If your subject is wearing a uniform, you may be able to locate a resource depicting military costumes of different times and locations. Though clergymen did not consider their clothing to be a uniform, they dressed differently from laymen. An Episcopalian bishop in 1859 would have worn Bishop's sleeves held in at the wrist by a black band of ribbon, and he would have had side whiskers, but no mustache or beard.
Photographs of hunting parties have their own stories to tell - apparel and types of guns can help in the dating process. Snapshots including automobiles are dead-give-aways. Compare the automobiles to those shown in books to determine their vintage. Then you can deduce that the photo was taken no earlier than that date. If someone knows whether the car was bought new or used, you can get even closer to the actual date of the photo.
Fashion Trends from the Past - Here are some books that can help you to date clothing styles.
Tips for Preserving Family Photographs
Safely preserve your treasured family photographs for posterity.
Now that you have learned more about your mystery photos, perhaps even coming up with ideas as to who the subjects might be, you will be motivated to learn how to safely preserve them.
Our most precious memories, our family's photographic heritage, deserve first-class care; however, we unwittingly do the very things that can jeopardize their preservation. Some common methods of storage can present a harsh environment for photographs. So many family archivists carefully place ancestral photographs in albums to be handed down to future generations, never realizing that the very albums they use accelerate the deterioration of those treasures.
Dos and Don'ts
One of the worst methods of storage of photographs is the magnetic album. The culprits, in this case, are the adhesive, which seeps into the photo, and the plastic that covers the photographs. Any plastic used for storage of photographs should be designated as archival or non-PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic. Plastic containing PVC gives off gases that deteriorate images, causing irreversible damage. The best plastics are polyester; these can be found under the trade names of Mylar, polyethylene, polypropylene, triacetate and Tyvek. Photographs stored in magnetic albums for a long enough period of time eventually bond to the cardboard backing, making it impossible to remove the photo without damaging it.
If you prefer not to store your photographs in plastics, mounting corners made of non-PVC plastics can be used to attach photos to albums or scrapbooks. Harmful rubber cement, animal glues or mucilage should never be used on the backs of photographs. Other no-nos are paper clips and staples that can leave behind rust and stains; rubber bands can actually bond to photographs.
Paper that is not acid-free is also dangerous. The cardboard in magnetic albums gives off peroxides, causing yellow staining of the lighter parts of photos. The black paper in older albums gives off oxidant gases. If photographs are to be mounted on paper or cardboard in scrapbooks, the paper or cardboard should be acid-free.
If you plan on including newspaper clippings in the same album or scrapbook with photographs, keep in mind that older newspaper has a high acid content. Because it is made of wood pulp (lignin), exposure to light causes yellowing and deterioration. Photocopies should be made on acid-free/lignin-free, buffered paper for storage in albums or scrapbooks, and originals should be stored in a cool, dry, dark and safe place. Buffering agents neutralize any acids coming into contact with the paper. Be sure to find a copier using dry toner because it is less acidic than wet toner. Deacidification sprays can extend the life on non-acid-free paper documents by at least 100-200 years, but cannot be used on photographs.
If photographs are not to be stored in albums or scrapbooks, they should be placed in archival quality boxes made of acid-free paper or stainless steel boxes. Negatives should be treated in the same manner. It is a good idea to make negatives of all ancestral photographs and store them in another place from your photographs. Negatives kept in a safe deposit box can be retrieved should something happen to the original photographs.
Ideal Conditions for Storage
Stable temperatures and low levels of light and humidity are essential for stretching the life of your photographs. Ideal conditions are 65 to 70 degrees, with 40 percent relative humidity. Attics and basements are poor choices for storage because of high heat and humidity levels. Albums and scrapbooks should be stored upright like books, never stacked. Stacking causes abrasions upon the surfaces of your photographs.
Enhance the Meaningfulness
When mounting photographs in albums or scrapbooks, be sure to label each one. Pens with acid-free ink help to maintain the acid-free environment. Of course you will include names, dates and places, but additional comments enhance the meaningfulness of your scrapbook. A photograph of your great-grandparents' home might have a caption such as, "Four of the children were born here; great grandma and great grandpa both died here. The home was sold in 1924." A family group photograph could be labeled, "When Joseph married, he moved west to Colorado; the other children stayed in Indiana and raised families." Inserting family group records helps to clarity relationships of the subjects to each other and the persons viewing the photographs. The backs of photographs are safely labeled with a number two pencil or art pencils that do not damage the back or bleed through to the front.
When to Choose Professional Restoration
For damaged photographs, seek the advise of professional conservators. Cellophane or plastic tape should never be used to repair - it causes permanent discoloration and accelerated deterioration. Cracks, tears, missing pieces, stains and faded photos can be beautifully restored by a qualified professional. He does the restoration from a work print, but does not change the actual condition of the original photograph. Your local historical society or museum could provide the names of local professionals experienced in photographic restoration. With a little practice, you can using digital imaging software to do your own restorations. Working with your own scanned images, just use the tools in the program to clone parts of the photo to replace damaged areas.
Archival materials cost a little more, but the impossibility of placing a monetary value on irreplaceable ancestral photographs justifies the expense.
Protect and Preserve Your Photos - Learn all you can to make those photos last a long time.
Restoring Vintage Photos
Digital Preservation and Restoration
What a wonderful way to view and keep our treasured photos!
Whenever possible, scan your photos, and save the digital images in a meaningful way. Choose a good software program, and create a digital scrapbook. These can be printed and make wonderful coffee table books. Either presentation will make an valued gift, or take it to the next family reunion, and be the envy of everyone. It is a great fund raiser as an auction item or as a grand door prize to encourage a good turnout.
More Wonderful Resources - Take advantage of every opportunity to learn more about this fascinating subject!
Find Photographs of Your Ancestors - Check out these sites to look for photos of your great grandparents or other ancestors!
This link to the first photo below will take you to the cartes de visite. Find many more photos like this from Bonnie Miller who has hundreds of identified photos for sale at eBay!
More Places to Find Photos of Your Ancestors - I could get lost here, so don't wander too far, and come back soon. :-)
All you need to get started is a name! Search these places, and you may be blessed by discovering that someone saved a photograph of your own ancestor.
- Ancestor Genealogy Photo Archive
Lots of photos here...
- Dead Fred Genealogy Photo Archive
Don't let the name of this one scare you off. :-)
- Pictures - Ancestry.com
Connect with others who are researching the same people.
- Lost Faces - Ancestor Photos and Albums
Hope they're not lost forever.
- Family Old Photos
Maybe your ancestor's photo will be here.