Hints for dating family photographs

Many of us have family photographs passed down but are not sure when or where they might have been taken, or even who they are of. A date will sometimes help identify the subject and fit a photograph into a family tree, so a little knowledge about how to estimate the date of a photograph can come in handy. Here are a few tips that might help you make a start.

1860s: Portrait photography from the 1860s was usually full length, with a carpet, some old furniture and a variety of studio props such as a curtain. Men may be wearing a jacket buttoned only at the top and women would be wearing floor-length, wide dresses. If the lady’s ears cannot be seen under their hair and the back of the card has a simple print for the photographers name and the cardboard feels a little thin, it is from the first half of the 1860s. If you can see the lady’s ears it is the later 1860s. Such photo cards usually have square corners.

1870s: Portraits from the 1870s were often half or three-quarter length (with no feet showing); the ladies’ hair was less severe, with perhaps a curl, and the subjects were often sitting down in a more casual way; clothes were trimmed with lace or tassles. Men wore lounge suits with matching waistcoats by the middle of the decade. The cardboard of photos from this period was thicker and stronger and the printing on the back was typeset with fonts but usually one large word, and perhaps a border; a logo may also appear. The card may have rounded corners; this was common in the mid to late 1870s.

1880s: In photographs from this period, the ladies’ dress was more severe and close fitting; sometimes it might have a bustle. Skirts had pleated edges, boys wore sailor suits and velvet suits, men wore a morning-coat suit or a lounge suit, with a top hat, bowler or straw hat. Ladies had high white collars often with a brooch at the neck, and tight fitting sleeves. Their hair was usually pulled back. The reverse of the card was quite filled with print and could be artistic.

1890s: Women wore dresses with little ornamentation, often with a brooch at the neck and with their hair in a bun with no fringes. Sleeves became wider until by 1895 the ‘leg of mutton’ shape was very fashionable. Collars were high and with a ruffle or lace. Most cartes were head and shoulders only, the backs of these photographs were very elaborate and artistic; coloured backs and gold print was common.

1900s: Wide sleeved blouses were still worn for a few years, but for many this was the era of the blouse and simple skirt and straw boater hat. Wider brimmed hats date from June 1911 onward and were often worn with a short slit in the skirt. In the 1920s hair was more often cut short and the hemline rose for the first time ever. In 1898 Postcards replaced cabinet cards as the main type of cheap studio portrait and their popularity peaked during the First World War. Some cabinet cards were produced for the first decade of the century but they looked a little different, with a simple logo and studio on the bottom front and often saw-cut edges or pinking and rarely any writing on the back.

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