Dating old photos

A fine Victorian family group but not much use unless you have some idea of the main people in the picture. Here we appear to have a Victorian patriarch, centre front, with his wife (on his right), his sons and daughters (possibly with their spouses) and either his mother or his mother-in-law, next to the young boy. The young men all look to be in their 30s but probably range from 20 upwards.


Clothes can help identify the period in which a picture might have been taken — but not always. The stern preacher on the left is clearly dressed in the frock coat and clerical collar of the late 19th century — but he is still wearing the coat, below, 20 or more years later

Nowadays we tend to take family pictures for granted — especially in this digital age where we can snap to our heart’s content and delete any we don’t like.

This was not the case in the mid 1900s when, even though cameras were used for family snapshots, every picture had to count on a 12-exposure roll of film.

In the century before most people did not even have the luxury of a camera and relied on special trips to the photographer for family portraits. These might be a once-in-a-lifetime visit for some families (and there are plenty who could not even afford that once).

For others it might be special occasions — a wedding portrait of the happy couple; a family portrait at the time of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee; or a soldier’s portrait taken before he went off to war — the Crimea, the Zulu wars, the Boer wars (although now they are referred to as African wars).

If you do have old family pictures, hopefully with some form of identification as to the people in them, then take care of them.

You have to remember that in Victorian times styles of clothing made some people look much older than they were. Children often wore similar styles to their parents and with the penchant for beards among men until almost the end of the century it could be difficult to tell whether two men were father and son or brothers.

The main things that can help you are the style of clothes (men’s broad-lapelled high buttoned, almost double-breasted jackets, with non-matching trousers worn with top boots, gave way to narrower lapels, single-breasted jackets); while crinolines gave way to more fitted and less voluminous dresses but with fussier ornamentation around the neck. The problem is fashions sometimes arrived late in an area or lasted longer so other clues are also needed.

Props can help in picture identification — the chair as an ornament, or something to hold on to rather than a seat tends to point to the 1860s or early 1870s.

The earliest photographs involved a form of bitumen, varnish and pewter plates.

Louis Daguerre moved on the process to develo; the daguerrotype in 1839 which involved copper plates, silver coating, iodine and mercury.

They took a long exposure and were better suited to scenes rather than portraits but in the 1840s a method was found to speed up the process.

Some early daguerrotypes may turn up in your attic.

These were one-off prints but within a decade or so the negative/positive process had been introduced which allowed for multiple copies. Glass negatives still exist and, if handled carefully and by an expert can produce wonderful photographs from a bygone era.

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