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Identify Your Old Photographs - Part 2

In my last post, I discussed chain of custody and context as primary clues to identifying old photographs.


This series is important to me because I believe that many people are throwing away, selling, or giving away their old family photos because they simply don't know who the people are in the photographs.


Grandparents pass away and as attics and closets are cleaned out, photographs are discovered. If no one knows who they are, photographs of strangers can loose their value and be easy to part with. Unknowingly, family members are disposing of generations of family history. Great-great-grandparents, aunts and uncles are left on the curb because family is grieving, stressed and doesn't know who to ask to find out the identity of who is in their pictures.


I believe you can discover who the ancestors are in those images. So, rescue them from the curb. Great Aunt Mary deserves more than to be on her way to a dumpster or picked over at an estate sale.


In this blog post, I want to start with another basic element of photo identification. Dating the photograph.


Photography has changed a lot in the last 170 years. But if you know what you are looking at, you can date the image. This can be your first clue in discovering who the subject is in the photo.


If you discover daguerreotypes, you are looking at an image created in the mid 1800's. Most widely used between 1840 - 1860, daguerreotypes will usually come in a protective case. If you discover an ambrotype, it too will have a case, but have a flat, rather than reflective look. The date range for an ambrotype image most likely falls between 1855 - 1868. A tintype is a metal image that can be tested with a magnet to confirm that it is a tintype. Tintype images were most commonly produced from 1865 - 1878.






Printed photographs that are mounted on boards were popular productions from glass plate negatives. They will come in these formats:


If you have a carte de visite card, you are looking at a date range of 30 years. 1859 - 1889. But it was most commonly used between 1860 - 1875.





Cabinet cards were most commonly produced from 1873 - 1903. These were printed on thin paper and then mounted on boards. They come in various sizes.




Black and white photo post cards were produced from 1901 - 1934. Photographs were printed as postcards so that they could be cheaply mailed to family and freinds.





Plain back post card prints were the earlier photo post cards, 1901 - 1907. These are prints that are stamped 'Post Card' and printed on thick paper, but there is no dividing line.





Divided back post card prints were developed from 1907 - 1934. If you see that dividing line, with a space for address on the right and a correspondence on the left, it is post 1907.





If you have a divided back post card and it has a stamp space, there are clues in that stamp space that can be dated. I found this great resource online here. You can really narrow down the date range for any post card photo prints you have in your posession.





Early print photography from 1910 - 1930 was produced as silver gelatin prints. It had a sepia tone or rich and subtle black and white tone on thin paper. A glossy sepia or black and white image with a white border on thin photo paper indicates the image is from the 1910s or 1920s.


By the 1930's a thicker paper was being used. Early photographs had a soft paper feel on the back and a glossy smooth front. As it aged, silvering and fading can occur. Even if the white border has been trimmed off, the silvering and fading is a tell tale sign that you are looking at an older image printed on silver gelatin paper.





Color photography was introduced in the 1940's and widely used from 1950 - early 2000's.


By the 1960's resin coated paper was used, giving a smooth plasticky feel to both the front and back of the photo.


By identifying the type of photograph, you can get a date range. Having an approximate date is a huge step in identifying who is in the photographs you have. As I suggested in my previous post, it might be helpful to keep images with careful notes. I often place mine in manilla envelopes and record "clues" on the outside as a way to document what is known about the image. After recording the chain of custody, context in which you found the image, now you can record the type of picture and date range based on the type of image it is.


Be sure to subscribe to my blog (by clicking the tab at the top of this post) for more to come in this series about how to identify the people in your old family photos. Become a history dective and solve your family mysteries!


#preservehistory #historydetective #photographrescue

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