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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.

Tax Stamps

One widely-known method of dating certain old photographs applies to the presence of a Tax Stamp on the back. During the Civil War, a wide variety of revenue taxes were imposed to help pay for the war effort. One such tax was a kind of sales tax, and that law included a section specifically addressing the sale of photographs.

Tax stamps were required on photographs from 1 Aug 1864 to 1 Aug 1866. The amendment allowing one cent stamps for very cheap images was begun in March 1865, so photographs with one cent stamps date between March 1865 and 1 Aug 1866.

The amount of the tax was dictated by the selling price of the photograph: 2 cents for images selling for less than a quarter; 3 cents for pictures selling for 26 cents to 50 cents; and 5 cents for images selling for 51 cents to a dollar. Another category was added later, 1 cent stamps for photographs selling for less than 10 cents each.

No stamp was specifically produced for photographs, so photographers used a variety of IRS types -- internal revenue, bank check, playing cards, proprietary, express, whatever they could get -- but generally not regular postage stamps because they funded the Postal Service rather than IRS. Those few cases where postage stamps were used are probably examples of error on the part of the photographer.

Of course multiple low-denomination stamps were sometimes used to make up a larger total, such as two or three one-cent stamps together, and sometimes a large value is found on one photograph, to cover the price for a large order. The other photographs in that set may not have any tax stamps.

Instructions to photographers for implementing this tax told them to affix a revenue stamp to the back of each photograph, of the appropriate denomination corresponding to the retail price-range for the photo, then cancel the stamp with the photographer's initials and the date.

If every photographer had followed those instructions exactly, we would have a tremendous resource of dated images from identified photographers for the brief period this law was in effect. Alas, the bureaucrats failed to realize just how time-consuming such a procedure would be for photographers producing large quantities of images. The 'multiplying' camera, with nine or more lenses, could produce as many photographs with a single click. The popular CDV format allowed any number of exact copies of the same image to be produced from the original glass plate negative, and indeed photographers advertised discount prices for purchases by the dozen.

So in practice, many photographers took short-cuts. They cancelled stamps with an 'X' or even pre-cancelled entire sheets by drawing a straight line through each row, before they were even affixed to the photographs. Others have no cancellation marks at all. Some used their initials, but no date. When a date is present, it is often just the last two digits of the year, rather than a full date. Many cancellations are so hurriedly scribbled that they are illegible. Others were produced using post-office style hand-stamps, with the name of the photographer or studio, the date, and sometimes also the location. In the end only a small percentage of Civil War era images have a tax stamp with an exact date and the photographer's initials, but there were so many images created in those years that even such a small percentage translates to a great number of actual photographs.

Because the presence of a tax stamp narrows the likely date-range for the image to just a two-year range, these images often sell at a slight premium above equivalent images without stamps. This has caused some unscrupulous dealers to add bogus stamps to images, in an effort to make them sell better. Often times such dealers are as uninformed as they are unethical, and so apply the stamps to cards of the wrong vintage, or use stamps from the wrong period. I have seen dozens of images that are clearly from the 1870s and 1880s, and even occasionally a few from the 1890s, with 'tax stamps' affixed them. One creative miscreant even used Confederate States stamps, even though the Confederate States had no such tax. Such forgeries are not common, but they do exist, and if used on a photograph from 1863 or 1867 might be difficult to detect.

Nor is the absence of a tax stamp proof that a particular image falls outside the August First 1864 to August First 1866 period. Many stamps fell off, or were removed by stamp collectors. Sometimes a discolored rectangle shows where a stamp used to be, but other times there is no visible evidence. As mentioned earlier, the Confederate States had no photograph sales tax, so images from areas under their control would not have stamps. Large orders might have stamps on one photo for the complete order, leaving the rest without stamps. Also, there were so many photographers, that we have to suspect at least some them skipped using the stamps whenever they thought they could get away with it, to save the expense.

Tax stamps are most commonly seen on CDVs, with the two-cent stamp the most common, though plenty of three-cent stamps are seen. Other denominations are less common. Other photographs with tax stamps include cased images -- ambrotypes and tintypes or rarely daguerreotypes -- where the stamp may be on the back of the plate or on the case and usually was of three or five-cent denominations. Loose and cardboard-mounted tintypes are frequently noted with tax stamps, usually with one or two cent stamps, due to their lower costs. Stereocards, enlarged matted prints, and framed images are occasionally seen with tax stamps, usually of three cents or more.

Some CDVs with photographer imprints have a printed box area left blank for the tax stamp. These most commonly date from late 1865 or early 1866 if they have a stamp present, or later in 1866 or early 1867 if the stamp is missing.

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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