How to Date Old Photos
Identifying an old photo isn't as hard as you would think it would be. There are a few easy ways to identify old photos given how fast the photographic processes changed during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Here's quick guide on How to Date Old Photos for photos from the 1850's - 1900. For more recent photos, you'll need to rely on clues from the photo itself:
The first photographic process was developed by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. Its popularity peaked in period from 1842-1856, and began to wane in the following years. The process involved polishing a sheet of silver-plated copper, treating it with fumes, and exposing it to a camera to fix the image to the metal -- this resulted in an image that appears to be fixed on to a mirror.
If you have a photo that is cased, has a mirror-like quality where the image changes based on the angle, and the back of it looks like it has some copper and silver elements, you have a daguerrotype, which means likely a 1845-1860 photo. There are ways to date the images inside this range, but let's stick to the basics for now and move on to the next type: Ambrotypes.
Ambrotypes are similar to daguerrotypes in that they were often preserved in similar cases. The difference is in the process used and how it looks. While "dags" were produced on sheets of copper/silver, ambrotypes were produced on an actual mirror that was coated in a silver iodized sulfate solution. This means that the image is much crisper and appear the same from all angles. Many photographers also treated the images with some hand-tinting like the one above.
Here's a typical, cased example of an ambrotype from 1859.
Daguerrotypes and ambrotypes were expensive processes that could only be done in studio, so the advent of tintypes brought photography to the masses.
Tintypes aren't based on tins (don't let the name fool you!) but rather based on a thin iron-sheet that holds a crisp, black-and-white or chocolate-toned image. Tintypes were invented in 1855; they became widely used to document Civil War battles, encampments, and soldiers. Later, mobile studios appeared at fairs, carnivals, and with traveling photographers. The process was used through the end of the 19th century, but most of the tintypes out there date from 1865-1875.
Most tintypes found today are loose or in paper sleeves vs. ambrotypes or daguerrotypes that were always cased. If you want to verify that you have a tintype, however, there is a sure-fire method: place a magnet near the back of the photo. If it sticks, you've got a tintype!
Cartes de Visite: 1863-1877
Cartes de Visite, or CDVs, were the first types of photos that had a true negative, which meant that people could obtain multiple copies of a single photo. As such, they were often used as calling cards or promotional cards and traded among friends and colleagues. If you are trying to identify your own family photos, you'll likely find few CDVs among your collection.
CDVs are very easy to identify for two reasons: 1) The actual photo is a thin sheet of paper glued to a stiff card stock and 2) they are always a specific size (right around 2 3/8" x 4 1/4").
Cabinet Cards: 1875-1900
Cabinet Cards became popular in the U.S. in the mid 1870s as the format allowed photographers to print larger sized photos and also print their studio and location on the front and back of the photo. Most of the Cabinet Cards out there date from 1880-1890, but they span the years before and after. They were typically sized 6 1/2" x 4 1/4", but versions from the 1890s were often quite a bit larger.
Here are a few tips on getting the precise date of your cabinet card:
Card Stock: Thickness and Edges
1866–1880: square, lightweight mount
1880–1890: square, but with a much heavier card stock
1890s: heavier card stock, but with scalloped edges
Card Color: Off-White, Alternating, or Yellow
1866–1880: thin, light weight card stock in white, off white or light cream
1880–1890: different colours for the front and back of cards. You may find green/white, brown/yellow, etc.
1882–1888: a more durable matte-finish front, with a creamy-yellow, glossy back
Borders: Red, Gold, or Embossed
1866–1880: red or gold, either single and double lines
1884–1885: wide gold borders
1885–1892: gold edges, typically beveled
1889–1896: rounded corner, but a single line
1890s on: Embossed borders and/or lettering
Lettering: Small or Large and Ornate?
1866–1879: You'll find photographer name and address often printed in small lettering just below the image, and/or studio name printed on similar lettering on the back
1880s+: Large, ornate text for photographer name and address, often in cursive style. The studio name may cover the entire back of the card.
Late 1880s–90s: Gold text on black card stock
1890s on: embossed studio name or other embossed designs