by Joelle Steele

Aside from the people in a photograph, there is often other identifying content that can help you date or place a photo. Look at the buildings and other background scenery in a photo to see if you can figure out where it was taken. If you're a family genealogist, look at all the other pictures you have and see if you can find other photos taken in the same location.

Signs & Numbers. Look for house numbers, street signs, other buildings, water towers, business signs, etc. You'll probably need to scan some photos at very high resolution (600-1200 dpi) and enlarge them onscreen in your photo editing software to examine some of these very tiny details.

Backdrops. In the earliest years of photography, portraits do not have decorative backdrops at all. The backgrounds are solid and dark owing to the long exposure times. Backdrops came into fashion in the late 1850s to early 1860s. They were individually hand-painted by local artists to be used at the studio of a particular photographer. Bigger studios had more than one backdrop from which a sitter could select for their portrait. Since most people did not travel far to have their photos taken, you are likely to find that an entire family had their photos taken in front of a particular backdrop used by their local photographer. However, people became mobile during the Civil War, World War I, and well into the 1930s with widespread use of trains for travel, so you can expect to find photos taken away from a family's home town during those times.

History. It helps to know a little about the history of people, places, and things when you examine old photos. I have certainly spent an enormous amount of time in the library and researching online to learn about old cars, trains, architecture, wars, elections, cities, trades, and industries. It all comes in handy and just adds to the tools you can use when trying to figure out when and where a photo was taken.

No matter how much you research, you should try to verify your findings by contacting local historical and genealogical societies, libraries, and museums that can confirm or refute your findings, or possibly suggest other clues in the photos or other ways to verify the content.

Hair and Clothing Styles. Another way to limit the date of a photo is to look at the styles of the clothes and hair. Clothing and hair are important because you may have a Daguerreotype portrait, but that doesn't mean the photo was taken in 1845. It could as easily have been taken in 1875 or even later, since Daguerrians were still using that process as late as the 1920s. Knowing what was in fashion at any given time during which photography was in use (1839-present) will help you determine the right decade in which your photo was taken.

Europe set the pace fashion-wise, and it took awhile for fashions to make it to the East Coast of America, let alone as far as the frontier (the Midwest to the West Coast). Fashions in hair and clothing changed quickly though sometimes rather subtly, so you have to know what to look for in dating a photograph. It can seem time-consuming to learn about this subject matter, but remember that you are only dealing with the time period from about 1839 to the present. There are many books and Web articles about historic fashion/costumes and hair styles to help you.

However, not everyone was wearing the latest fashions when their photographs were taken. People at all socio-economic levels in the 19th and early 20th century world owned few changes of clothing. Up until about the mid-20th century, men and women hung on to their clothes for many years. They "recycled" their clothing, having the damaged areas replaced with newer parts that were less worn or more fashionable. Men, in particular, often wore their same formal dress wear and outer clothing — no matter how out of style it may have been — until it simply could not be cleaned or mended further. So, it would not be unusual to find a man in a photo who is wearing a dressy standing collar and cravat ten years after that style had passed.

People also often wore clothes that belonged to their parents and siblings. Women frequently wore wedding dresses that were passed down and around through the family, and some of these dresses could be quite old, with some being modified to modernize them somewhat. And, while we are accustomed to seeing women wearing white lacy dresses and veils for their weddings, most women, particularly those who lived on the frontier of America or who were of a lower socio-economic stature, just wore their best Sunday clothes or borrowed a nice dress to get married.

Sometimes clothing can be used to determine whether or not a photo has been laterally (horizontally) reversed. In most cases, men's buttons are on their right and women's are on their left. It has been that way for centuries. But this is not always the case, as some wealthy individuals might have their clothing designed in the reverse so that the servants who dressed them had the buttons going in the opposite direction for ease of buttoning.

Hair styles changed, as did fashion, but some people hung onto their old hair styles for the length of their adult life. Contrary to popular belief, men do not always part their hair in the same place throughout their entire lives. Neither do women. It is more common for them to part it on the same side, but sometimes the parts do change sides, so that is not an accurate way to determine whether or not the photo was laterally reversed.

One thing that you will never see is any person wearing clothing that had not yet come into fashion. While a person in a portrait may be wearing outdated, out-of-style clothing, they would definitely never be wearing clothes or hair styles that came into fashion after they had died. This is very important when, for example, you know who a woman in a photo might be, and you know that the woman died in 1854, but the woman in the photo is wearing a dress with a bustle (which first debuted in 1869, was out of style by 1876, came back in style in 1883, and was out of style again in 1889). In that case, it simply cannot be a photo of the woman you think it might be.

This article last updated: 07/10/2004.

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