Many people inherit photographs of generations of ancestors and struggle with frustrations of identifying exactly who is in each photo. Understanding the time periods for certain image formats can help tremendously, though. It narrows the probable window for a portrait and thus helps determine how many “greats” to add to that unknown uncle!
History: Optical boxes utilizing pinholes and reflecting light have been used to project images onto a surface for more than a thousand years. In the 17th century, these boxes were called camera obscuras and were surreptitiously used by many popular artists as tracing devices. It was not until 1827, however, that the camera’s image was captured permanently (by a chemical reaction on a pewter plate) by Frenchman Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce. After Niépce’s death in 1833, his partner, Louis Daguerre, perfected the process for practical use. The result was the daguerreotype. By the 1840s, the technique was in wide use for commercial applications.
Many improvements and changes in the photographic process continued for the next several decades. Experts can date old images by recognizing the differences between mirror-like daguerreotypes, glass plate ambrotypes and iron plate tintypes, but it can be difficult for a layman when these images are cased. (And taking the cases apart can damage the plates). So, here are a few very simple rules of thumb to guide in dating:
Image Cases: If your photographic plate is in a folded case made of a plastic-like material and lined with velvet, then it probably dates between the mid-1850s and the mid-1860s when production of these cases was at its height. If your image case is wood and covered with leather, cloth or paper, then it could be as old as the 1840s. The surrounding brass mat styles and textures can narrow the time periods into further subsets—and there are many guides available that can help with that identification.
A cased daguerreotype, circa mid-1850s.
Photographs on Cards: The common uncased tintype was prolific during the Civil War and was even produced into the early 1900s, but its use dropped dramatically in the mid-1860s and was replaced by paper images pasted onto heavy cardboard, which were cheaper to produce.
The carte de viste (used as a calling card) was a small size (2 ½” – 4”) version that was the most popular between 1860 and 1870.
A larger version, the cabinet card (4 ½” x 6 ½”), was in wide use between 1870 and 1900. Experts can narrow the time frames for these cards by the color, thickness, edge styles and borders. Large, elaborate studio names on the back of the cards appeared in the later decades of popularity.
A cabinet card, circa late 1880s.
Kodak introduced an affordable personal box camera in 1900. People began taking their own photographs and that began the decline in popularity of the studio cabinet cards.
Clothing and Hairstyles: All of the aforementioned formats overlapped to some degree, so another way to date images from the late 1800s is by clothing and hairstyles. Those vintage photos may all look the same to us now, but the styles did change dramatically, and as often they do today. Part 2 of this article, coming soon, will help identify your photographs by the style of clothing.
Finally, Beware of Fakes: If you know the provenance of your family’s old photographic images (which means you can trace their ownership), then you know they are genuine. But it is extremely easy to create cabinet cards with sepia tones, copy pictures onto plastic “ambrotypes” and even transfer photos onto modern tintypes. And unfortunately, it happens all too often. Indians, Civil War soldiers and Wild West show personnel are the most popular reproduction subjects, but portraits of people holding unusual objects (such as toys, books, old tools, dolls or pets) are also collectible and therefore subject to fraud. It’s much better to find your ancestors in a shoe box in grandma’s attic!
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.
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