In addition to world history, I have an interest in trying to learn more about and preserve my own family history. In doing so, I’ve amassed a small collection of old photos. Sadly, most of these are unlabeled. In some instances I’ll be able to recognize one or two people in a photo from other sources, but not always. Thankfully, with some simple detective work it’s possible to determine the age of the photo and the location where it was taken.
First, it’s helpful to know when the type of photo you’re trying to identify was likely to be in use, and what each one looks like.
- Daguerreotypes – The earliest type of photograph. These came out in 1839 and generally fell out of favor around 1860 when better options became available.
- Carte de Visite – Named for the French term for calling card, these became popular around the start of the American Civil War, and continued in use until the end of the century. These are always 2.5″x4″ or less.
- Cabinet Cards – These are easy to identify, because they will always be 4.24″x6.5.” Logos on the back make it easier to track down the printer. These came out after the close of the Civil War and lasted until around 1900.
- Tin Types – Actually made out of thin sheets of steel and not tin, this type of photo was first released in 1856 and stayed popular through the end of the century. They come in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, and sometimes have certain colors (like red or blue) added in.
You can read more about types of photographs, and see examples of what they look like, here. Keep in mind that while some types of photographs may have fallen out of popularity, it’s not impossible to find photos taken in that style much later.
Once you’ve determined a date range for when your photo was likely printed, it’s time to look for additional clues to narrow things down a bit further.
In this first photo we were lucky enough to have a name: Daniel Camwell. I had no record of this person existing in any of my genealogy research, but I did know of some relatives with that last name who lived near Coventry, England. After a search of various ancestry websites, I found three people with that name in that general area. But without more context, I couldn’t be sure which one of them I was looking at. So what came next? Obviously the type of the photo and the outfit that Camwell is wearing point to sometime in the mid to late 1800s, but we can do better than that.
Thankfully, photos like these, known as “cabinet cards,” often have the the photographers name on the back. And these photographers would change logos periodically, allowing for a fairly accurate date range. In this instance, the photographer opened that particular shop in 1867.
With that, we can guess the age of the man in the photo and come up with a possible range of possible birth years for Daniel Camwell.
This second photo doesn’t have a name written on it, but does have a logo for the photographer. A Google search reveals that William Hart established his business on Constitution Hill in 1862, so we know that this photo cannot be older than that. He also switched logos at some point in 1866, giving a range of 1862-1866.
Including the location, I know that this person was likely related to any branch of my family that lived near Birmingham, England during that five year period. Thankfully, I eventually found a cousin with a photo of this man and his wife, so I was able to determine that he was almost certainly my great-great-grandfather who lived in Staffordshire (less than 40 miles from Birmingham) and who would have been about the right age during that date range.
For American photos, this website is an invaluable resource in narrowing down the years a photographer worked out of a particular location. Using that, I was able to narrow down the time frame for this tin type to 1872-1873.
Unfortunately, finding the date is just the first step in the process. Next is identifying which branches of your family may have lived in a particular location at a particular time. Even then, sometimes exactly identifying a person can be a challenge. For the tin type above, at least two branches of my family lived in the general vicinity of that photographer at that time, but without finding that man in another photo I can’t be sure which branch he belongs to.
Adding to the confusion, he could have been a family friend and not a relative at all! There’s a reason that Carte de Visites had their name. A lot of these smaller photos were made to be given out. In this case I try to at least sort them by whichever branch in my family was most likely to know them.