How to spot dating clues in old photos


06 September 2016
Cabinet-1880s-79288.jpg Cabinet 1880s
Photo-dating expert Jayne Shrimpton says it's never too soon to address those baffling photographs in the family archive

Photo-dating expert Jayne Shrimpton says it's never too soon to try to identify ancestors in heirloom photographs in your family archive... 

Most of us have at least some old family photographs that have been handed down the generations and these are very special heirlooms - among the most intimate and personal items associated with past family members. Sometimes we already know for certain, or have a good idea, which ancestors are pictured in these historic images, but since many photographs were not firmly identified at the time, there may well be some whose subjects are completely unrecognisable to us today.

Dating old photographs accurately is the only way to begin incorporating them into our family history research in a meaningful way: after all, we wouldn’t dream of accepting any undated or unidentified printed records or manuscript documents as serious evidence.

And yet photographs aren’t always subjected to the most rigorous evaluation: too many of us seem satisfied with roughly estimating the time period of our old photographs and guessing at who they may portray, or simply go along with family hearsay, without double-checking the facts.

Identifying photographs incorrectly not only leads to serious errors in compiling our visual family tree, but can also obscure what the pictures are actually telling us – visual pointers to what may be fascinating truths about our past.

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It is never too soon to address those baffling photographs in the family archive and to help you get underway. Beginning with the new September issue of Family Tree, we have a special three-part series of photo dating articles explaining all about the different photos that crop up in the family picture collection. Starting with the first luxury studio portraits of the 1840s and ending with casual snapshots of the 1950s, each issue covers a few decades and explains the main features to look out for, including identifying the photographic format, dating the card mount, investigating the photography studio and dating the pictorial details, especially the fashion clues.

The new Family Tree photo dating series runs from the September through to November issues and each feature is illustrated with images that reflect the kinds of photos surviving in many family collections. These should answer some of your photographic queries and hopefully the ability to date images more reliably will help with identifying some of those mystery family members. Visit our store to purchase individual copies of Family Tree, or subscribe and save - click here.

Also useful is our regular Q&A Advice Section, in which we cover two readers’ photograph queries each issue, explaining how to date them and what occasion they might represent. If you still need help with dating some of the more tricky family photographs at home, do send them in to us at Family Tree and we will do our best to feature as many as possible in forthcoming issues: email [email protected].