Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Dating Photos

Now that I have the new blog, Orphan Photos, I thought I would talk a little bit about photo dating.  I feel like a bit of a detective when I examine these photos for clues.  It is a lot of fun. I am not an expert by no means. I figure that if I can get the photo to within 5 years or so I am doing good.  There are very few absolute dating clues.  You have to look at all the clues together to starting forming a time period.

If you can at least narrow down the type of photo it is, you can get a general date range.

The Daguerreotype was introduced in 1839.  It was popular between 1842 – 1856 and then started disappearing around 1857 – 1860.  A Daguerreotype is shiny and the back is copper.  You have to adjust the angle when you are looking at it to see the image clearly. 

The Ambrotype was introduced in 1853.  It was popular between 1855 – 1861 and then started disappearing around 1862 – 1865.  An Ambrotype is on a glass plate and looks like it has depth (3D).

The Tintype was introduced in 1856.  It was popular between 1860 – 1870 and then started disappearing around 1872 – 1878.  You will see tintypes that are newer than this though.  They were popular as a novelty item at fairs and carnivals.  The tintype is easy because it is magnetic.  It will be on a thin blackened piece of iron.

The Carte de Visite or CdV was introduced in 1859.  It was popular between 1860 – 1880 and then started disappearing around 1880 – 1889. A CdV will be small, about 2 3/8 x 4 inches.  It will be a thin piece of photographic paper glued onto a card. 

The Cabinet Card was introduced in 1866.  It was popular between 1875 – 1900 and then started disappearing around 1901 – 1903. A cabinet card is much bigger than a CdV, approx. 4 1/4 x 6 1/2 inches.  They were called cabinet cards  because they were meant to be displayed in a cabinet in your house.  These will also be thin pieces of photographic paper glued onto a card.

Real Photo Postcards were popular from 1903 to 1930 but continued on into the 1940s.  These are easy to spot because there is a photo on one side and a postcard on the other.  It was a great way to mail yourself to your relatives. 

Once you determine the type of photo it is you can then look for specific clues to narrow down the date.  I don’t have enough room on the blog to give you all of the specifics but I can give you a few references you might want to get if you are interested. 

If you want to see examples of the different types of photographs and see how I date them, you will need to tune in to the Orphan Photos blog.  I just bought a lot of 10 tintypes.  I can’t want to get them in the mail.  You will see those on the blog in a couple of weeks.

I encourage you to rescue old photos from eBay, estate sales, yard sales and flea markets.  Remember that the people in the photos are real people and they have descendants out there somewhere that would love to see their ancestors up close and personal. 

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis


  1. I enjoy looking at the backgrounds in old 20th century family snapshots. The cars, building details, trees, flowers and other gardening plants bring back as many memories as do the images of the people. It helps to put in perspective the lifestyle of our families.

  2. The above book, Forensic Genealogy, is all about looking for clues in the photos themselves just like you have describe. She teaches you to not only how to date the photos but how to zero in on WHERE they were taken. It is fascinating :)

  3. I have bookmarked this for future reference.

    Thank you.