How to Date Old Photographs - part 1

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

Working as a Family Historian I come across many old family photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's a real piece of detective work trying to put a name to an old black-and-white photograph when our Ancestors weren't obliging enough to scribble down something on the back. But, after all, THEY knew who the subject was.


One of the first pieces of information we need to deduce is WHEN the photograph was taken. Now there are some clues to be had from the style of dress, the way the photographer posed the subject, but increasingly individuals and groups are also compiling dating information from the style of photograph itself. It might be grasping at straws to think that records might still exist for a particular studio, but photographers changed the layout of their prints repeatedly and often these changes can be dated to particular periods. I wouldn’t assume you can pin the photograph down to a particular year, but I’ve certainly dated photographs to a narrow band of, say, 5-years in this way.


Firstly, it's important to identify which type of print that the photograph falls into, as each will have its own style and nuances for a particular studio.


The earliest types of photograph were Daguerreotypes. These date from 1839 and mark the start of popular photography. Daguerreotypes required only minutes rather than hours of exposure during which the subject had to sit rigidly still. The images have a 'mirror-like' quality, making them immediately recognisable. However, they were very expensive – several weeks pay for many – and so out of the price range for most families.


These were followed in 1854 by the Ambrotype. The Ambrotype lacked the sharpness of the Daguerreotypes but were much cheaper and exposure time was tens of seconds rather than minutes. By the end of the 1850s they had almost entirely superseded the older Daguerreotypes.


1856 saw the introduction of Tintypes. These were a development of the Daguerreotype and images were captured on a thin metal plate. The development time for a Tintype was just a few minutes, meaning that an image could be provided to a customer after just a short wait. Itinerant photographers set up portable studios and photography became affordable to the working classes. In the US Tintypes were known as the 'penny photograph' and were hugely popular at the time of the Civil War and during the expansion of the West with customers of all backgrounds.


In the UK however, Tintypes were chiefly purchased by the poorest of the working classes. The images were derided by the wealthier classes as being inferior and poor quality and they disregarded them except as a novelty purchased typically at the seaside. It’s only in recent years in the UK that the social and photographic significance of the tintype has been recognised.


While Tintypes were mainly popular from the 1850's through to the 1870's, you would still find tintype photo studios operating in the UK well into the 1900's as a novelty. In the example above, the Ladies' hats indicate that this Tintype photo was taken in the 1920's.


Despite their name, Tintypes contain no tin. Rather the image is held on a black iron plate. This is useful for identification purposes as Tintypes will attract magnets.


Sources:

‘Redefining the British Tintype’, Sheila Masson 26.11.2015

‘A (very) Brief introduction to the British Tintype’, Britishtintypesadmin 18.08.2015

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