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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.

Dating Cased Images

One problem with cased images is that they were standardized in size -- 1/16, 1/9, 1/6, 1/4, 1/2 and full plate sizes make up 99% of all image cases. With just these half-dozen sizes, it is easy to swap an image from one case to another -- so the image may not be of the same age as the case.

This swapping of cases is not a new phenomena, either. The original owner may have swapped cases, or had a photographer move an image from one case into a newer model, when the original case became worn or damaged, or just because they liked the style of the newer cases better.

Some dealers have been known to place newer images in older cases to pass them off as older images -- luckily that is rare, but it has happened. More often, a damaged case with a nice image is swapped with an empty case or one with a poor image, without taking any regard for the relative time periods of the articles involved.

Basically, any owner of the image for the past 150 years (or however long it has existed) could have changed the case for one reason or another ... so the age of the case is not sufficient to date the image it contains. But knowing the approximate age of the case is still useful, and it is reassuring when that age matches the approximate age of the image within.

The first cases probably were made the year or two before the daguerreotype process became public, and were intended for painted miniatures. By the mid-1840s cases were being produced for daguerreotypes, and in the 1850s the same cases were used for dags, ambrotypes, and tintypes. By about 1865 the popularity of cased images was totally eclipsed by paper photographs mounted on cardboard, and so cases only occur only very rarely from 1866 to about 1872.

Dating Cases by Materials and Styles

Not all daguerreotypes were placed in cases -- especially in the first few years, many were framed, using styles and materials common for oil paintings. But cases rapidly became the most common treatment -- the delicate surface of a daguerreotype required protection of some sort, and cases were the most convenient.

The earliest daguerreotypes were often placed in cases made for miniature paintings, but within a few years of the announcement of the process in 1839, custom cases were being made for the daguerreotype trade. Cases from the 1840s were typically made on a thin wooden frame, covered with thin leather like that used to bind books. Just as in the books, there was often a cardboard layer under the leather to help lend stiffness to the material. And again, as with books, the leather was often tooled -- embossed with patterns or images.

Many of the earliest cases, from 1839 to 1842, were hinged on the narrow end, and designed to open upward, so the image was placed with the top toward the hinged side of the case. The cover of the case was often lined on the inside with soft cloth -- velvet or silk. Another characteristic seen on some early cases is that the outside of the cover is sometimes curved outward -- it bulges. The domed cases do not stack well, and were rapidly replaced with flat styles in the mid-1840s.

It is my impression that cases from the mid-1840s to 1850 tended to be a little thinner than later cases, but I have not had enough examples in-hand to be able to confirm this. Otherwise, the leather case of the 1840s was fairly standardized, and differ little from those of the 1850s or early 1860s.

A cheaper style was introduced in the late 1840s or early 1850s that used embossed paper in place of the leather. These do not wear as well as the leather did, but looked quite similar on casual inspection. Look closely at the worn edges with a magnifying glass, and you can see which are paper and which leather.

Almost all 1850s and early 1860s have red, purple or green plush velvet lining the inside cover. Some photographers had these inner linings embossed with their identification, sometimes including the address.

There was also a premium case introduced about 1850, with inlaid mother-of-pearl added to the outside surface. These must have been expensive, as very few are seen in comparison to the numbers of leather and fake-leather cases.

In 1854 Samuel Peck patented improvements to the 'Union Case' -- a thermoplastic case that had been introduced to the market the preceding year. Note that he did not claim to have invented this, one of the first uses of plastic, and so far I have not been able to discover who did actually invent the process -- though perhaps it was A P Critchlow Co, who made that claim in their ads in the late 1850s -- without any patent to back it up. In any case, these hard molded cases offered much better protection than the composite wood and leather. And the new cases could be produced in a variety of designs -- in fact over 1,000 different designs have been identified. I have yet to see a union case dated to 1853 or 1854, though they must exist -- from 1855 they become commonplace, and remain so as long as photographic images were cased.

Dating Cases by their Mats

During the first few years of Daguerreotype production, 1839-43 or so, daguerreotype edges were routinely covered with gilt paper, leaving a rectangular or more-rarely octagonal opening for the image. When cases began to be produced specifically for photographic images, those were replaced with brass mats, cut with an oval or elongated octagonal opening for the image, and hence referred to by some with the French term passe-partout. In the mid-1840s they added arch-topped and rectangular with rounded corners to the passe-partout styles. About 1848 a variety of curvilinear patterns were introduced. All of these 1840s brass mats were flat and plain, with perhaps the inner edge beveled rather than cut square, as the height of decorative improvement.

Beginning about 1850 some brass mats had the inner edge of the passe-partout embossed with ridges, lines or patterns, especially on the oval style openings, to give the impression of a frame. After 1853 some of the mats are no longer smooth, but have a fine textured surface. By 1855 other patterns begin to appear on the mat -- finely engraved lines or embossed figures. From 1857 onward the mat may be entirely covered by these embellishments.

Despite the increasing complexity seen in later mats, plain undecorated mats continued to be used as well, so the absence of embellishments is not a clue to age, only their presence. Beginning about 1850 some photographers embossed their mats with their names and sometimes addresses as well, and these photographers almost always preferred plain surface mats, with only the thin decoration around the opening, so as to make their imprints noticeable.

Dating Cases by their Preservers

Preservers were added to some of the cased image package about 1846, in an effort to better protect the cased daguerreotype from tarnishing. The preservers goes around the edges of the cover glass, mat and daguerreotype plate, all of which have been taped to keep them still and prevent air penetration. Adding a preserver also helped the image package fit more snugly in the case, as the brass was a bit curved where it was bent around the edge, forming a slightly flexible surface to engage the inside of the case.

Cased images with no preserver are common throughout the 1840s and sporadically until about 1853. After that date almost all cased images have a preserver, but those preservers vary greatly in complexity and style. I have defined four levels of complexity for preservers, which seem to have chronological implications:

Simple -- a narrow band, plain (though I never saw any, I will include that in case there are some) or with simple diagonal or straight lines, usually running across the short dimension of the preserver.

Patterned -- simple repetitive patterns, typically curlicue shapes, roses, or flower and leaf. Sometimes the pattern is fairly complex, but it repeats continuously over the length of the preserver.

Multi-patterned -- these have two or more patterns that alternate along the length of the preserver. Most often there are two patterns, one ornate with flowers or complex lines, the other a band of simple repeating lines, much like the simple preserver.

Complex -- these tend to be the widest preservers, and have a variety of decorative styles, typically multi-patterned. The distinguishing characteristic of these preservers is that the inner edge is not straight, but has projections, usually at all four corners, and often also midway along the edges.

Observations Disclaimer: the following quantified description of years and frequencies is based on the study of available examples of dated images in the ClassyArts collection, published books and online resources. The available sample is neither exhaustive nor statistically random, so expect sample-errors. These results should be treated as indicative and suggestive, not concrete, and any percentages express an approximation at best.

Most online sources that mention preservers cite the absence of preserver as an indication of early provenience, specifically 1839-49. After that, preservers were supposed to be 'simpler' in design 1850-55, and more ornate after 1855. Most ambrotypes and early tintypes date from 1855 or later, so they usually have the more ornate preservers. Nobody defines exactly how to distinguish 'simple' from 'ornate' -- so here the above four-level range of complexity is applied.

In this study, only 6.2% of preservers fell in the 'Simple' category, and those dated from 1845 to 1861. The distribution through that period was sparse and even. Assuming this is the most simple of 'simpler' designs cited by conventional wisdom as typical of the 1850-55 period, I can not concur with that assessment, as only about 20% of the simple preservers were within that period, with the rest almost evenly divided as before and after. Perhaps by 'simple' they didn't mean _that_ simple!

The 'Patterned' preserver was the most common in this sample, with 45.7% of all examples falling in that category. The time span covered 1843-1865, but distribution within that time-frame was not even, with 62% of the patterned preservers coming from the 1850-55 period. Maybe _that_ was what they meant by 'simple'?? If we extend that span slightly to 1849-57 that encompasses 81.1% of occurrences of this style. I think we can assume most of the instances outside of this time-span (especially the single anomalous date of 1843) are due to switching images within cases, etc. My conclusion is that patterned preservers indicate a date from 1849 to 1857, with the peak of popularity 1852-54.

When it comes to 'Multi-patterned' preservers, I find only 13.6 percent of our examples fall in this category. They date between 1854 and 1874, with 54.5% of those 1854-58. Another 27.3% of this style, all dating 1864-69, were in oval cases -- cases in which the 'Complex' style would not be appropriate, since it has no corners. A single instance, the last in 1874, comes from a pair of images in a single case with matching mats, yet one had the multi-patterned preserver, while the other was complex. If we disregard these anomalies, less than 10% of images fall outside the 1854-58 time frame. My conclusion (subject to revision when we have more examples) is that multi-patterned preservers are typical of the period 1854-58, though not exclusively used in that period. Almost 40% of the examples from that time-frame have multi-patterned preservers, 10% have the 'later' complex style, and half were patterned.

The 'Complex' category of preserver was found on a bit over one-fourth of all examples. The dates spanned from 1853-74, with 81.8% falling in the 1858-65 time frame. Again, discounting the outlying dates as untypical, we can say that this most complicated style was most popular not 'post 1855' as common wisdom has it, but from 1858 until the demise of cased images.

To re-cap our conclusions then, the preserver alone is only a very rough indicator of date, but generally, we can observer that most of the time:

  • No Preserver suggests 1839-53
  • Simple Preserver is not very helpful, it was sparsely used 1845-61
  • Patterned Preserver suggests 1849-57
  • Multi-patterned Preserver suggests 1854-58
  • Complex Preserver suggests 1858 or later.

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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