ROOTS-L ArchivesArchiver > ROOTS > 1999-05 > 111043
From: "Georgianne Bowman" <>
Subject: Dating old photos
Date: Sat, 22 May 1999 09:22:33 -0400
This is from a listserve message I got some time ago. Hope it helps.
Dating Old Photos
Contributed by Dave Rozzana of Classy Image Restorations, Portraiture &
http://www.classyimage.com/index.html or email at
By determining the type of photographic technique used to make your old
family photos, it's possible to date, with reasonable accuracy, the date the
original was created.
Following are the most common photographic processes. With this information,
see if you can narrow-down the age of the photograph.
DAGUERREOTYPE (prox. 1839 1870)
The case resembled a double frame. Very decorative. The photo image is on a
silver clad copper sheet which is attached to a sheet of glass by a
foil-like brass decorative frame. This sealed packet was then force-fit into
wood case and was often padded with velvet or silk. Many times, the silver
image tarnishes with silver sulfide in the same way as silverware. They cost
$5.00 (more than a weeks pay for most people).
CALOTYPE (prox. 1845 - 1855)
The first photographs on paper. A two-step process. The first step was to
make a negative image on a light-sensitive paper. Step two was to make a
contact [print] with a second sheet of sensitized paper to make a positive
Calotypes were never widely popular, and most of those surviving are in
museums. Apparently Talbot (the inventor) did not fully realize the
importance of washing his prints long enough to remove all the residual
perhaps his fixing was inadequate. Either fault leads to the same result
fading image, discoloration, etc. These defects are now noticeable in many
calotypes, some of which are today little more than pale yellow ghosts.
AMBROTYPE (1854 to the end of the Civil War)
The ambrotype is a thin negative image on glass made to appear as a positive
by showing it against a black background.
Similar to daguerreotype in assembly of parts 1- Outer protective case. 2-
Backing of black paper, cloth, or metal. 3- The on-glass-image, emulsion to
the front and black varnish on the back. 4- Brass die cut frame 5- Gilt
border of thin brass to edge wrap the frame, glass, and backing. It was
common for the ambrotype to be colored. Suggestions of rouge cheeks or lips
suggested a person of substance. Buttons, watch chains, pendants, broaches
were often tinted with color.
Disadvantages of ambrotypes 1. A very slow (up to 20 sec.) exposure,
compared to 2 sec. for a daguerreotype. 2. The glass was very fragile. It
couldn't withstand travel or being carried in a locket as a daguerreotype
could. Advantage of the Ambrotypes Price. It could be sold profitably at a
low price, approx. 25 cents. The cost of the ambrotype was less than half of
THE TINTYPE (1856 to W.W.II)
"The penny picture that elected a president". Price- sold for a penny or
less, making photography universally available. The cost of an image at the
time the process became obsolete was about 25 cents.
Advantages 1. Lighter and less costly to manufacture. 2. Camera was lighter
and easier to handle. 3. Wouldn't shatter as a glass image photo would. 4.
Could be colored or tinted. As the public sought lower prices, the cases
(which cost more than the finished photographs) were eliminated. In their
place, paper folders of the size of the then popular card photographs were
used for protection. Instead of a glass cover, the photographer covered the
tintype with a quick varnish to protect any tints or colors added to cheeks,
lips, jewelry or buttons.
Popularity: The tintype was very popular during the Civil War because every
soldier wanted to send a picture of himself with his rifle and sword home.
They could be mailed home safely without fear of shattering. The tintype
actually does not contain any tin, but is made of thin black iron. It is
sometimes confused with ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, but is easily
distinguishable from them by the fact that a tintype attracts a small
DATING THE TINTYPES
Introduction 1856 - 1860. The earliest tintypes were on heavy metal (0.017
inches thick) that was never again used. They are stamped "Neff's
Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56" along one edge. Many are found in gilt frames or
in the leather or plastic (thermomolded) cases of the earliest ambrotypes.
Size range from one-sixth plate to full plate.
Civil War Period 1861 - 1865. Tintypes of this time are primarily one-sixth
and one-fourth plate and are often datable by the Potter's Patent paper
holders, adorned with patriotic stars and emblems, that were introduced
during the period. After 1863 the paper holders were embossed rather than
printed. Uncased tintypes have been found with canceled tax stamps adhered
to the backs. The stamps date these photographs to the period of the Wartime
Retail Tax Act, 1 Sept. 1864 to 1 Aug. 1866. Brown Period 1870 - 1885. In
1870 the Phoenix Plate Co. began making plates with a chocolate-tinted
surface. They created a sensation among the photographers throughout the
country, and the pictures made on the chocolate-tinted surface soon became
the rage. During this period "rustic" photography also made its debut with
its painted backgrounds, fake stones, wood fences and rural props. Neither
chocolate tint nor the rustic look are to be found in pre-1870 tintypes.
Gem Period 1863 - 1890. Tiny portraits, 7/8 by 1 inch, or about the size of
a small postage stamp, became available with the invention of the Wing
multiplying cameras. They were popularized under the trade name Gem and the
Gem Galleries offered the tiny likeness at what proved to be the lowest
prices in studio history. Gem Galleries flourished until about 1890, at
which time the invention of roll film and family cameras made possible
larger images at modest cost. It was no longer necessary to visit a studio
that specialized in the tiny likeness. Gem portraits were commonly stored in
special albums with provision for a single portrait per page. Slightly
larger versions also existed. Some
Gems were cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, tie pins, rings and even garter
Carnival Period 1875 - 1930. Itinerant photographers frequently brought the
tintype to public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. They came
equipped with painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, a beach, a boat, and other
novelty props for comic portraits.
Postmortems. In the nineteenth century it was common to request a
photographer to make a deathbed portrait of a loved one.
THE CABINET CARD (prox. 1866 - 1906)
A card stock product, nearly four times the size of previous photographs on
card stock. The larger size created new problems of photographic quality.
Flaws that were not obvious in the smaller cards now became very visible.
This gave rise to a new skill of photo retoucher. Success in retouching led
to innovations in the darkroom and at the camera. Diffusion of the image
reduced the need for retouching. This led to verbal skirmishes between
who insisted in "truth in photography". Opponents called retouching
degenerating, demoralizing, and untruthful practices. Cabinet cards can be
further dated by color of stock, borders, corners and size.
QUICK DATING GUIDE TO CABINET CARDS
The earliest American-made cabinet cards have been dated only to the
post-Civil War period, beginning in 1866. Design and colors of these cards
followed those of the cards of that time. Cabinet cards are rarely found
Card Colors 1866 - 1880 White card stock of a light weight. 1880 - 1890
Different colors for face and back of mounts.
1882 - 1888 Face of buff, matte-finished, with a back of creamy-yellow,
glossy.Borders 1866 - 1880 Red or gold rules, single and double lines.
1884 - 1885 Wide gold borders.
1885 - 1892 Gold beveled edges.
1889 - 1896 Rounded corner rule of single line.
1890 - 1892 Metallic green or gold impressed border.
1896 Impressed outer border, without color.Corners 1866 - 1880
Square, lightweight mount.
1880 - 1890 Square, heavy board with scalloped sides. -Photographs mounted
on card stock- The most popular mount sizes were
Carte-de-visite 4 1/4" x 2 1/2"
Cabinet card 6 1/2" x 4 1/2"
Victoria 5" x 3 1/4"
Promenade 7" x 4"
Boudoir 8 1/2" x 5 1/4"
Imperial 9 7/8" x 6 7/8"
Panel 8 1/4" x 4"
Stereograph 3" x 7"