How to Date an Old Photograph

Need to know how to date an old photograph? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What kind of photograph is it? Different types of photographic processes were used during different time periods: daguerreotypes beginning in 1839, ambrotypes beginning in 1854, iron tintypes beginning in 1856, and cartes de visite (or card photographs) after 1859. The photo mat, sleeve and cardstock could also give clues about the time period.
  2. Who is the photographer? By the 1860s, professional photographers operated studios in cities and towns all over the U.S. Some photographers had roving studios, too. On the back of many 19th-century images you can often find a photographer’s name and address. Identifying the photographer can confirm a window of time during which the photo was taken. Learn more about how to do that here.
  3. How is the subject dressed? Clothing, accessories, headgear, hairstyles, military props and more can help you date an image. Of course, not everyone dressed in the latest fashions each year, but these details provide clues. For example, if a certain style of hat or coat didn’t appear in fashion magazines until 1872, you know the image was taken after then.
  4. What props and background are used? The type of backdrop, furniture styles, rug, and any props that appear in the image can also help you date a photo.

Learn how to answer these questions and more about how to date an old photograph in my book, Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries. Does an old picture have you truly stumped? Send it to me for an online photo consultation, a cost-effective way to get an expert opinion on your photo mystery. Contact me here if you’d like me to speak to your group on historical photography or fashion, family history or related topics.

Example: Dating An Antique Baby Picture

How to date an old photograph?

There are so many clues that can help you date this old photograph: the animal skin prop, the clothes worn by the baby, the photographic format and the photographer’s imprint. Examine each picture carefully for clues. This picture was likely taken in the 1890s.

– Collection of the author