How To Date An Old Photo

By | April 8, 2017

You may have amassed many family photographs through the years. Do you know how old they are and how to date an old photo? Also, do you actually know who is in these photos? To answer that question 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.

How To Date An Old Photo

An old family photograph can bring you closer to your ancestors!

If you are tracing your family history then you may already know just how 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. When we see these photos of our ancestors we feel more connected to them. And quite possibly you want to know more about them.

So by seeing these old photos of your ancestors you may even be more inspired to trace their lives. If like me then you will want to know everything about them that you possibly can. You want to know where they lived, where they worked, all about their family and also what else did they achieve and do during their lifetime.

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 the trouble with these family heirlooms is knowing who is in these photos. Do you know who is in these photographs?

My own personal family photo collection!

I have had the fortune that my father has organized our family photo collection and has pretty much identified who is in most of them. I say pretty much because there were a few photographs where he wasn’t too sure who was in them. Only by using the clues that I will explain to you in this post were we both able to identify these individuals.

Before you start dating your old photographs I would suggest that you interview your relatives. By asking your relatives for help you can quite easily save yourself a lot of time and energy. Your relatives may already know who is in these photos.

So wouldn’t it make sense to ask the people close to you first before you start scratching your head and trying to work it out for yourself.

If however there is no one that can help you or you have already asked them but they were not able to help then by all means use the tips to date a photograph that I have provided in this post.

I wish you all the best with discovering your family history!

The Clues to Dating Old Photographs

There are a number of ways that can help you pinpoint the age of a family photgraph as I will explain here. These 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 is in these photos.

Clues to date an old photo

But let’s not get carried away just yet. First let us look at the clues that will help you date an old photo.

1. The 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 upto the 1960s.

2. The 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 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 when they were fashionable.

3. The 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 can you 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 it was taken. Although you may not be able to tell the year you may be able to tell from a range of years that the photo was taken.

Furniture is a great way that can tell you 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. So 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 indepth discussion as to what to look out for, and as well there are examples too.

5 different photograph types of the 19th Century:

  • Daguerreotype – 1839 (popular during 1842-56)
  • Amrbotype – 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)

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.

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.

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 discussed above.

There are clues there that you can use to help you with your family history research. So if you have become stuck with your old photos just take a closer look at them. Look out for the clues and also check out the She Knows website for further help.

==> Check Out The Photo Detective Collection For More Help <==

Adding these family photos is another great way to intrigue your relatives to your family history research. It may even interest the younger members of your family.

So I hope that you take the advice that I have outlined here and include this resource into your genealogy research.


Thank You and Please Leave A Comment

I hope you enjoyed this post explaining how you can date an old photo. If you think that this post will be helpful to others then please share it with friends and family using the social media buttons below.

If you have any questions or comments then please leave a comment below. I would love to hear from you.

Author: Owain

Hello, Owain here. After researching my family history for a number of years I wanted to give back to the genealogy world. So here you will find guides, tips and product reviews that will help you on your genealogy journey.

10 thoughts on “How To Date An Old Photo

  1. Kevin McNamara

    Hi Owain,

    Great post. I have loads of old photos and yes many I have no idea of the age. This post has helped immensely. I have family in the UK and Ireland so the family photos are very old.

    With the advice you give here I will definitely have a go at working out the age and I will check out the She Knows link too.

    Many thanks,


    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Kev,

      I am glad that you found this post helpful. Before you do work out the age of these photos may I suggest you just make sure you know where all of your photos are. They could be anywhere around your home. Also, your relatives may also like to share with you their own collection of family photos.

      The She Knows website link I gave will really help you work out the age of your photos. I wish you all the best.

  2. Jen

    I just love looking through old family photographs. I have aunt that has always encouraged me to stay up to date and active in genealogy (she has done a ton of research on our family history already) and therefore I have been intrigued to do so most of my life. Great tips on dating the photographs… such as looking at the hairstyles and the backgrounds… very clever! Why didn’t I think of that before? Very interesting article, I enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Jen,

      Sometimes we just get so caught up with the photos that we forget to take note of all those underlying clues. They can really help you put a date to the photo. And then ultimately help you to identify who is in the photograph.

      Stay tuned as I will be posting a follow up post on how exactly to do that.

  3. Paulina

    Great tips here! I never thought of telling a photo’s date by the hair style, I know that my grandmother has many photos of her parents and of her when she was young and I think that next time I’ll visit her I’ll take a look at the photos to see if I can tell the year the photo was taken.
    She also has many photos that are starting to loose there quality, is there any way to preserve old photos so they will still be in good quality?

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Paulina,

      Hairstyles are a great way to tell the age of the photograph. And this works just as well for any men that appear in your photographs.

      My How To Store Old Photos post does look at ways for you to preserve your photographs. These can range from scanning your photographs to storing them in suitable binders or folders.

  4. Ami

    Hi Owain, Thank you for this wonderful article. Until now, I had no idea I could date old photos. I have a couple of them put away, that I occasionally pop out and gaze at whenever am feeling nostalgic. I will definitely try and see if I can finally put a time stamp on them. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge.

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Ami,

      It is nice to hear that you pop out old photos from time to time to look at. For me when I do that I remind myself of the stories associated with each individual ancestor. It just brings it to life for me.

      As I have mentioned in the post if you are unsure as to who is in the photo then putting a date on the photo can help you. Stay tuned for my follow up post which will explain all of that.

  5. Jay

    How interesting! All the different clues you give to dating a photo- I wouldn’t have thought of some of them. Also I had no idea there were so many different photograph types! Best of luck with your endeavors 🙂

    1. Owain Post author

      Hi Jay,

      There are plenty of different photograph types. I did though concentrate on the 19th Century types though for this post. I will have to go back sometime and update it for 20th Century type photographs.


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