How To Date An Old Photo

You may have amassed many family photographs through the years. But do you know how old they actually are and how to date an old photo?

How To Date An Old Photo

Also, do you actually know who is in these photos?

To answer these questions you will need to know when the photograph was taken.

In this post I will show you how you can date an old photo and from this information you will be able to identify who is in the photo.

Discussed in this post:

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Bringing You Closer To Your Ancestors!

You may be surprised to learn that an old photograph can bring you closer to your ancestors. You may have heard stories, tales and anecdotes told to you by older members of the family.

Your ancestor's story!

When we see these photos of our ancestors we feel more connected to them.

And quite possibly you want to know more about them.

By seeing these old photos of your ancestors you may even be more inspired to trace their lives. And if you are like me then you will want to know everything that you can about them.

Your old family photographs can be a great addition to your family history research. You can put a picture to your ancestors and that’s great.

But if you do not know who is in them then how can you feel more inspired to learn more about your ancestors?

Clues To Dating Old Photographs

There are a number of ways that can help you to pinpoint the age of a family photograph.

This short video presented by the Midwest Genealogy Center shows just how easy identifying an old photo actually is. Although please bare in mind that you will need to do some research.

Credit:   Midwest Genealogy Center

The following clues can give you an approximate year that the photo was taken, or maybe the decade.

From here you may then be able to identify who are in your photos.

But let’s not get carried away just yet.

First, let us look at the clues that will help you to date an old photo.

1. Clothing and Accessories

When we look at our old family photos one of the first things that is brought to our attention is the clothing. Like today, fashions in the past did change.

What our ancestors wore and what accessories that appear in the photograph can also help us.

One website that can help you discern the different clothing and their periods is the She Knows site.

From here there are links to photo collections that date from the 1830s right up to the 1960s.

2. Hairstyles

Similar to the clothing that our ancestors wore we are also drawn to their hair and how it was worn.

We can tell a lot from these hairstyles and this clue can help us to identify the decade and maybe even the year that the photo was taken.

The She Knows site is again a great resource for you when recognizing hairstyles and knowing when they were fashionable.

3. Background

Another aspect of a photograph that may draw your attention is the background. The details that are behind our ancestors can also give us a clue as to the date of the photograph.

What to look out for:

  • The furniture or decorations in the background.
  • Style of the building that your ancestors are standing in front of.
  • The landscape behind your ancestors.

Whether the photograph was taken inside or outside there are clues in the background that can again tell when the photo was taken.

Although you may not be able to tell the year you may be able to approximate a range of years.

Furniture is a great way to tell the age of the photograph.

It is obviously similar to the fashion and hairstyle clues I have already pointed out.

If there is a building, maybe the family home, in the background then the facade can give you clues to the date of the photograph.

If there are buildings in the picture that do not exist today then this also can pinpoint the age of the photo.

Landscapes also change with time, what with houses being knocked down, roads being built or other changes.

So, if the photograph was taken outside then take a closer look at the landscape behind your ancestors for the clues.

4. Type of Photograph and Studio

With the advancement of photographic technology the type of photo can also discern the era. To be able to identify the year of the photo you will need to know the different types of photographs.

The Photo Tree site discusses five different photograph types that were available in the 19th Century.

From this site there is an in depth discussion as to what to look out for, and as well there are examples too.

You can use these examples to compare against your own photographs.

5 different photograph types of the 19th Century:

  • Daguerreotype – 1839 (popular during 1842-56)
  • Ambrotype – 1854 (popular during 1855-61)
  • Tintype – 1856 (popular during 1860-70)
  • Carte de Visite – 1859 (popular during 1860-80)
  • Cabinet Card – 1866 (popular during 1875-1900)

Please check out Sean William Nolan’s FREE guide book Fixed In Time where you can get further help on Daguerreotype, Ambrotype and Tintype photographs.

The years that the studio operated can also be an invaluable clue to you.

If the photograph was taken within a studio then the studio name may appear either on the front or the back of the photograph.

Search on Google!

I myself have used this clue to check out when studios were in business for some of my mother’s photographs that she had inherited.

For this I simply put in the studio name into Google.

You may or may not be surprised to know that Google did in fact help me to identify when the photograph was taken.

And then from this I was able to identify who was in these photos.

My Final Thoughts

You maybe hesitating to date and identify who is in your photos because you may think that it is just too hard to do.

But dating an old family photograph does not need to be complicated as I have shown you above.

Look for the clues!

There are clues there that you can use to help you with your family history research. If you have become stuck with your old photos just take a closer look at them.

But if your old photos are still a headache for you then why not ask your relatives for help.

They may possibly be able to help you, and who knows they may even provide you with more photos for your research.

Old Family Photos - Photo Detective Collection

Get Photo Detective Collection To Help You!

Old family photographs are a great way to get the younger generation interested in family history.

But unless we know who is in the photos then they are practically worthless.

So, do yourself a favor and find the hidden clues in your photos and discover your ancestors.

Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining how you can date an old photo. If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below.

Please share with family and friends if you think this post will help others by using the social media buttons below.


  1. Sean William Nolan May 11, 2018
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