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Dating Old Photos
Dated Imprints
Public Domain

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

Identifying and Dating Historic Photographs

We provide a great deal of information of value in learning to identify and date old photographs, and have even more information and resources available for subscribers. This part of the site is continuously developing, as we complete new research and find new information. Be sure to check back periodically for the latest updates.

There is much more to successfully dating old photographs than just looking at the subjects and guessing the approximate age based on their clothing styles. Clothing styles are important, but the image itself is only part of the story. The mounting or case can provide many clues, the context the image was located in, the ownership history (or provenance) and even the dirt (or lack there-of) on the object's surface may yield clues.

This ongoing study is the first large-scale investigation into dating old photographs since William C Darrah's groundbreaking research into CDVs, published in 1981. By my calculations, Darrah seems to have had about 3,024 dated CDVs to work with (less than 5% of the 62,608 cards in his collection). Currently, I have approximately 3,500 dated images -- but they span the first 111 years of photography, 1839 to 1949. Our collection continues to grow.

These pages include a lot of specific guidelines -- particular characteristics are observed between specific years in our collection. Remember that those are GUIDELINES not rules. There will always be exceptions. We do have ONE RULE for you: when dating old photographs: NEVER rely on a single characteristic. You should find two or three or more characteristics that all support the particular date or date-range you assign to an image - preferably at least one from the image itself and one from the case, card mount, or mat if it is mounted. If you find evidence that suggests conflicting dates, be sure the time-span you choose has the stronger supporting evidence. Remember that the image may be older or newer than the case, if it has been transferred, and may be older than the card mount or mat it is found on, if it is a copy.

We also devote a lot of attention to identifying images, not just assigning a date, though that is often an important part of identification. The house I grew up in was built about 1840, and still had junk in the attic from earlier owners, including a large gilt-framed charcoal portrait of a man and woman. These portraits, I eventually learned, were made from photographs -- very faint enlarged images were printed on a large sheet of cardboard, then 'painted over' or actually, in the case of charcoal or colored chalks (called crayons) -- sketched over, by an artist. I have never seen the original photograph, but I did find in an old local-history book a copy of the photograph that the man's image was drawn from -- the pose and position, every detail matched exactly. So with no more than an approximate location, it is possible to identify some of these old photographs -- and often we have much more than just the location, once we closely examine the image and the card, case or mat where it is mounted.

So never give up hope -- and please, never deface old photographs or allow them to be damaged by neglect. One day I hope a massive collection of identified images may be used in combination with face-recognition software to help us identify many of these old anonymous images. Until that idyllic day, we must work very hard to add information -- clues about dates, identities and locations. Dating old photographs is still as much an art as a science. In future ages seeing what ancestors actually looked like, and viewing old images of locations as they appeared in years past will be easy with computer assistence, but only if we preserve these images now.

Perhaps I should add a section on preservation of old images -- but it is pretty basic and obvious: avoid heat, light and humidity in your storage location as much as possible. Never display original images on your walls or shelves, but use high quality modern copies. Create, and periodically renew (as technology changes), a high-resolution digital copy of each image, and share those widely.

Dating Old Photographs: Identifying the Object

Dating Old Photographs: Identifying the Subject

Dating Old Photographs: Identifying the Photographer

Dating Old Photographs: Clues Providing Approximate or Exact Dates

Resources for Dating Historic Photographs

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

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