Tips on Dating Old Photos

Sometimes, sorting through old, unlabeled photographs and trying to determine the names, dates, people, and places in them is like attempting to solve a mystery. Old family photographs are a treasured part of any family history but understanding them and the stories they tell can often require an extensive knowledge of your family history and some good old, hands on detective work. Though it may seem like a challenge, by following the tips below, you will be well on your way to putting together the puzzle pieces of your past. 

Identify the Type of Photograph

The first step in dating old photos is determining the type of photograph it is. Because photographic styles have evolved throughout the years, identifying the technique used
will help you narrow down the time frame of when the photo was taken.

Find the Photographer?

Every now and then, you may get lucky and find that your photograph contains a small tidbit of information. What you may not realize, however, is that this information can be of great value. Be sure to check the front and back of the photo for the photographer’s name or imprint. Sometimes, there may even be an address for the studio. With this information, check city directories or approach local historical or genealogical societies that can help determine the time period the photographer was in business. More often than not, this information will help you narrow down your time period. 

Check Out the Scene & Setting

The setting or backdrop for a photograph may be able to provide clues to location or time period. Early photographs, especially those taken prior to the advent of flash photography in 1884, were often taken outside, to take advantage of natural light. Use a keen eye and look for background items in the photo that may help determine the approximate date. A car, street sign, or household item in the photo that is familiar to you can lead you closer to the year you are looking for. 

Focus on Clothing & Hairstyle

As times have changed, so too, has style. Throughout history, clothing and hairstyle fashions have significantly evolved. Pay special attention to waist size and styles, necklines, skirt lengths and widths, dress sleeves and fabric choices. Women’s clothing styles tend to change more frequently than men, but men’s fashions can still be helpful. Menswear is all in the details, such as coat collars and neckties. 

Match the Clues Up With Your Knowledge of Family History

Once you have some clues that bring you closer to solving your family history mystery, it’s time to call in some backup detectives. Reach out to your family and gather as much information as you can. Sometimes, relatives may recognize faces or features that were unfamiliar to you. With your clues and backup, you’re bound to find the answers you were looking for!

Image of Cathi Nelson

Cathi Nelson, author of Photo Organizing Made Easy, is the founder of APPO (Association of Professional Photo Organizers), a membership organization dedicated to helping thousands of entrepreneurs from around the globe build successful photo preservation and organizing businesses.

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