You may have amassed many family photographs through the years. But do you know how old they are and how to date an old photo?
Also, do you 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.
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 of 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
Several ways 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 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 is 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 are brought to our attention is the clothing. Like today, fashions in the past did change.
What our ancestors wore and what accessories 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.
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.
Another aspect of a photograph that may draw your attention in 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 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, 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 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 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 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 the studio name into Google.
You may or may not be surprised to know that Google did 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 may be 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 be able to help you, and who knows they may even provide you with more photos for your research.
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.
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12 thoughts on “How To Date An Old Photo”
I have written a free comprehensive guide to dating very early photographs. ‘Fixed in Time’ is a guide to dating daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes by their mats and cases, for historians, genealogists, collectors and antique dealers. It is available as a free PDF or as a print-on-demand book.
‘Fixed in Time’ illustrates a thousand daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype mat and case styles, each dated according to the years they were used. Some mats and cases were used for only a brief time, allowing you to date some early photographs to within a year. The dates provided are based on my own research, a five-year labor of love, where I located nearly 5,000 objectively dated early photographs.
You can get ‘Fixed in Time’ at
This book would not have been possible without the assistance of the many institutions, collectors and antique dealers who shared their expertise and their dated images, provided illustrations, and made many suggestions and corrections. Thank you, all.
– Sean William Nolan
Thank you Sean for visiting The Genealogy Guide and suggesting to the visitors of this site this really helpful book.
Genealogy is a sharing hobby, we all help each other. So it’s great that you have reached out offered this free PDF.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.