Learning to date old photographs

by Sally J.

in * How to ORGANIZE Your Photos, Free Articles / Blog

[NOTE: This post originally appeared one year ago, July 30, 2007.]

Last year, Randy over at Genea-Musings found this wonderful photographic treasure in his Aunt Geraldine’s papers. He asked for input from readers to help date this pair of cased photographs. Randy’s post contains some great resources to help you date old photographs, so be sure to stop by. It’s nice to have resources pooled together like that. Thanks, Randy!

Dating old photographs is a very effective way to help identify who is in the photo. If you can narrow it down to a decade and you know your family tree, it’s much easier to figure out who is pictured in an unmarked photograph.

Here are two great books that will help you date your photographic treasures.
Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs
by Maureen Taylor, The Photo Detective

As far as I’m concerned, Maureen Taylor is the Supreme Maven of Photo Dating. Lucky for us, she shares her expertise in easy to understand books written with genealogists in mind. This updated version of one of her classics is a must-have for every family archivist.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Every single rating on Amazon.com is 5 out of 5. Here’s the first review, click here to read them all.


A beautiful and useful book, January 5, 2001
By Mark Howells (Puyallup, Washington State, USA) – See all my reviews

This book is an outstanding way to expand your family history skills through photo research. It provides step-by-step advice on how to identify ancestors in photos using their poses, clothes, studio props, and other information.

After giving a history of photography with emphasis on identifying types of photographs by era, the author provides chapters such as “Looking for Clues”, “Identifying Costume”, and the very important “Identifying the Photographer”. The book also gives detailed information on how to build your own family photograph collection including the use of photograph worksheets and proper labeling.

The photographs used to illustrate the book are simply glorious. It is a visual treat to follow the pictorial examples given to explain the text. Each photo is an exquisite specimen of how our ancestors faced the camera.


Oh, and don’t forget to visit Maureen’s Photo Detective blog.

Dressed for the Photographer
By Joan Severa

If you’re serious about dating photographs, there’s another book that will make your task much easier. You don’t need this book if you have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of costume. What’s that? You don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of costume? Yeah, me neither…and I sourced historic photos for over six years. It takes a long time to build that expertise.

Once again, family historians are fortunate that an expert has shared her knowledge with the rest of us. Joan Severa is a former costume curator at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Joan’s book, Dressed for the Photographer, is PACKED with example photographs and arranged chronologically. The images are large enough for you to see the detail, and the book is printed on high quality paper (that’s why it’s so pricey). Joan points out all the hallmarks to look for when dating a photograph, including clothing, jewelry and hairstyles. She also does a fantastic job including photographs of regular working people, not just the wealthy. Amazing book. Nothing else like it out there.

Purchase these recommended books from Amazon.com:

[Photo Credit: Randy Seaver, Genea-Musings blog]
Dating British Photos:

Reader Andrew Millard left a helpful tip in the comments section about a web site for dating British photographs:

Andrew says: “It has a wide range of dated photographs that you can compare to your own undated ones.” Thanks again, Andrew!

Other articles you might enjoy:
5 tips for preserving your one-of-a-kind family photographs
Where should I store my family photographs?
What to keep? What to toss?
Flash drives are NOT for long term storage
Why do archivists wear white gloves?

Jenni October 30, 2008 at 5:39 pm

This post has some great info.
Thanks for sharing.

diane.haddad September 18, 2008 at 5:20 pm

Hi, Sally,
Family Tree Magazine’s Genealogy Insider Blog hearts you, too. (I was trying not to repeat others’ hearting–you’re popular!)

Our post is at http://blog.familytreemagazine.com/insider/I+Heart+Awards.aspx


Janet Hovorka September 17, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Denise beat me. Same here: http://thechartchick.blogspot.com/2008/09/i-love-your-blog-award.html Keep up the good work.

Denise Levenick September 15, 2008 at 7:41 pm

Hi Sally, you’re “It.” I’ve tagged you with the “I Heart Your Blog” badge on The Family Curator http://www.familycurator.blogspot.com

Thanks for a wonderful blog.

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