Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dating Old Photos - you can do it!

Below is my reply to a conversation recently held on a genealogical forum.  The topic was how to date two photos.  I offered to try my hand and was able to do so pretty easily.  But folks continued to post to the discussion explaining which "professional" was better, and why we mere mortals couldn't possibly date photographs.  
I believe that any one of us can accurately date photos.  As I mention in my post, we are only talking about 160ish years of photographic history.  If we subtract the years that you and your "elders" were alive, and thus can offer more specific dates for most photos in your collection, you need to be able to date photos from 1850 - 1950.
Read the rest of my posting and let me know if you have questions.  I bet you can figure out those undated photos on your own!

The photos that Don sent to me were "candid" outdoor shots.  The first of a group of women in front of a house, the second depicted three ladies outdoors on a walkway or esplanade in front of a body of water.  Both contained the same female relative at different stages of her life.
I was able to date the first one as circa 1912 because the ladies were wearing dark high-waisted, gored skirts that appeared to widen as they lengthened with white shirtwaists (what we call a blouse today) with narrow sleeves, high collars, and elaborate embroidery.  Their hairstyles were loosely upswept, not severely combined.  Further indication of the time period was offered by the tantalizing bit of the house in the background - gingerbread work around the roof of a rounded porch.
The second suggested a 1927-1929 date.  The hats were the big giveaway smaller and less ornamented cloches.  Their above-the-ankle dresses were of the 20s very straight style, with no emphasis on the waist.  One lady sported the popular drop-waisted style and another had sheer sleeves on her dress - also very popular as bare arms during the day was just becoming acceptable for the first time in about one hundred years.
There is no secret to dating photos.  Attention to details and solid research are the only skills needed and anyone can quickly gain those.  I encourage anyone to pick out one of their undated photographs and try to determine the date.  The relative youth of photography helps greatly.  Photography was invented in 1822, and didn't become popular until the invention of the wet-plate process, so you only need to know styles of clothing from the late 1840s to the present.  (If the photo is in color, it is most likely from 1935 or more recent - but there are color photos from as early as 1907).  From there look at clothing and hairstyles.
(As a Civil War re-enactor who wears and lives in the clothing of the period for days at a time I have learned to notice the intricacies of dress, hair, ornaments, and accessories.  My many years of work as a historian have taught me to pay close attention to details and have taught me how to do proper research.)

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