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Dating Family Photos
This page created 26 November 1998
Updated 14 May 2010


Collecting family photos is a natural extension of compiling a family history, and in the course of tracking down long lost relations, one often gets access to old photographs.  The identities of many of these old photos has long been forgotten, but it is possible, with some careful dating, to make a reasonable guess at the identity of some portraits.

It is important to calculate the date of a photo for which you have been given an identity. Our informants, though well intentioned, are often wrong.  If you have ever found that a particularly cherished family story has skipped a generation, (the story about grandfather Tom turns out to have been about HIS father), sometimes you will find that photos are older than you think, and can represent an earlier generation.

There are four main aspects to look at when dating an old photograph, but it is quite usual for some of those aspects to be missing.   Those aspects are:

1 The type, or physical characteristic of the photo, such as the shape or thickness, and finish of the mount board.  (If you have a modern copy, that aspect will often not be evident.)

2 The photographer’s studio, i.e. in what period was the photographer known to operating at the address printed on the mount board. (Once again, that information might have gone missing when a copy was taken, or the original may not have had a photographer’s name on it.)

Directory of London Photographers, 1841 - 1908 by Michael Pritchard

3 The studio background - certain types of background were characteristic of different periods. Sometimes, however, the background is non-descript, or not evident in a head-and-shoulders portrait.

4 The costume and hairstyle of the sitter.  Most photos will have indelible clues as to the time frame of a photo in the hairstyle, the shape of the jacket, bodice, skirts, sleeves, and so on.  However, this is not always straightforward - sometimes the details of the clothing are not very apparent, or the subject was an old person wearing clothes of a considerable vintage.  Sometimes persons associated with a religious sect might adopt very plain clothing which does not vary in detail over several decades.

Is the photo a copy of an earlier picture?
Just to make the task a bit trickier, sometimes a photograph will have been re-photographed at a later period, so that the characteristics of the type of photo and the photographers’ name will be quite misleading. Does the period of the costume, hair and studio background match the date determined by examining the mount board? Are there telltale signs?

Links to Australian photographic history sites
Southern Queensland Photographers - Marcel Safier

Checked links 26 February 2008