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Who ARE These People?? By Dorothy J. Dill

Identifying people in old family photos requires some detective work but if you know what to look for and what it means when you find it, you're well on your way. It helps to know where your pictures came from.

How did you get them? From your grandmother on your father's side? BIG CLUE. Is there a group picture with somebody in it that you know? Another clue. A really good clue? Writing on the back; don't forget to look for it. However, verify the information there-you don’t know who wrote it or when. If you think your clues are non-existent, don't worry. Help is on the way. Narrow your search by knowing more about the photograph, i.e., what TYPE of photo is it, when was it TAKEN, who is the PHOTOGRAPHER, what do the CLOTHES look like, what AGE is the person in the photo and what distinctive FACIAL FEATURES are visible?

Types and Dating of Photographs

1839-1860 (approx) Daguerreotype. An image was created directly on a highly polished silver plated copper. The finished plate was usually mounted in a velvet case or a silk padded wooden case. A brass mat was used to provide a space between the image and the cover glass. The image can appear as either a negative or a positive depending on the reflective light. The process was expensive and it usually tarnished. Images were sharp and clear. Hallmarks may be stamped on the back of the plate and can be used to date the photo. Lists of hallmarks can be found in reference books in the library. The metal plate of the daguerreotype is not magnetic. Daguerreotypes were cased to protect the image. A brass mat encircled the image, covered by glass and held together with a preserver.

1841-1857 (approximately) Calotype. Negatives from a glass negative were made on salted paper and a contact print was made on a 2nd paper. These were not very stable and fade quickly if exposed to light. The images lacked detail and were not sharp and clear.

1852-1890 (approximately)Ambrotype. A thin negative image directly on glass. This was put against a black background and it appeared as a gray-green positive and is not reflective. A decorative brass die cut frame formed a gilt border to hold it all together. The price was reasonable for the consumer.

1856-World War I. Tintype. The tintype was an image produced on a thin piece of iron that had a thin coat of emulsion applied to the "japped" or blackened iron. It was cheap to do and the camera was easier to use. There was no glass to shatter. The image could be tinted (cheeks, lips, jewelry) and touched up. A varnish was applied to protect the colors. Tintypes are magnetic.1861-1866 Affixed to paper holders with ovals cut out. Some were printed with stars and emblems. After war time the decorations were embossed. War time tax stamps were affixed on the backs. Some were encased like the daguerreotypes. Cases for tintypes were discontinued after 1867.

1870-1885 Tin types were brown tinted. The photographers used "rustic" props and ones made of paper mache, painted backdrops, fake stones, wood fences. The brown tint was not used before 1870.

1863-1890 Tiny portraits 7/8 x 1 inches were made (about the size of a postage stamp) called "Gems" These were cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, rings, etc.

1875-1930 Carnival Period. Photos were taken at public gatherings - fairs, carnivals, events. The photographer arrived with camera and painted backdrops and paper mache props.

1845-1910 - Types of Glass Plate Negatives

Wet Plate Print. Exposures were made on treated glass plates. A coating was applied to the glass plate to hold the silver nitrate on the surface. The plate had to be exposed in the camera before it dried, thus the "wet plate" term.

Dry Plate Print. Invented in 1860 and used between 1864 and 1890 the dry plate was not used very much. It was replaced by the gelatin dry plate by 1880 film, mostly because of cost factors and ease of use.

Gelatin Roll Print Film. The gelatin roll print film was invented in 1884 by George Eastman.. It was more convenient than either the wet or collodion dry plate and was in use until about 1920 when it was replaced by the plastic based films available in rolls.

Multiple images could be taken on the glass plates.

When was My Photograph Made?

Prints from the resulting negative plates were made on very thin paper that had been treated with various mediums. From 1850 to 1900, most used an emulsion of beaten egg whites and silver nitrate. These are called "albumen prints". A salt based emulsion was also used but few of these can be found; they are rare (calotypes.) Deterioration of the albumen print results in a sepia tone photograph and they appear somewhat glossy. The salt prints are dull when held to reflect the light and they fade to sepia, brown or purple.


Because these prints were mounted on such thin paper, they were glued onto card stock to provide strength. The card stocks are good clues to dating these photographs. The Cartes-de-visite were very popular during the Civil War because they could be included in letters


1855-1870 primarily ( but still done as late as the early 1900's.) Carte-de-Visite aka CDV's. Multiple portraits were exposed on a single plate that was 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches by using a rotating camera back. Prints were cut into individual images and mounted on cardstock or on the treated iron of the tintype and were typically 2 ½ x 4 inches. There is usually a photographer's imprint on the back.


1865-up to the first decade of the 20th century, the Cabinet Card. These were 4 times as large as CDVs. Because of the larger size, they could be touched up. Photographers also found they could put their name on the front. These are the cards often found in elaborate photo albums. The usual card size was 4 1/4 x 6 ½ inches. Other card sizes had names:

            Victoria - 5 x 3 1/4 inches                  Promenade - 7 x 4 inches

            Boudoir - 8 ½ x 5 1/4 inches                Imperial - 9 7/8 x 6 7/8 inches

            Panel - 8 1/4 x 4 inches.

The thickness of the card stock with both Cabinet Cards and CDVs is a clue to when the photo was taken. Measurements can best be done using calipers but since we don't usually have these available, another method can be used using sheets of 20 lb. bond paper. One sheet of paper is about .004 inch and card mounts varied from about .01 to .05 inches thick. Using the following scale, you can approximate the thickness of the cards.Inches Sheets

.012 3

.016 4

.020 5

.024 6

.028 7

.032 8

.036 9

.040 10

.044 11

.048 12

 To measure your card, place it on a flat surface. Stack 3 sheets of paper along the longest side and add paper to the pile a sheet at a time. Lightly run your finger across the surface where the photo and the papers come together, going across the seam and then with it. You should be able to feel a distinct ridge on the card side at first. Continue adding paper until they feel equal or where adding another sheet makes it just barely too high.

1858-1869 Cards were .010 to .020 inches thick thick           5 or fewer sheets of paper

1869-1887 Cards were .020 to .030 inches thick                    5 to 8 sheets of paper

1800-1900 Cards were .030 to .040 inches thick                    7 to10 sheets

1890-1910 Cards were greater than .040 inches thick            more than 10 sheets of paper

The color of the card stock is equally important.

1858-1860 white, both sides

1861-1866 gray or tan

1869-1874 yellow was common

1871-1880 thicker whites

1872-1878 thicker grays

1873-1910 pale colors of lavender, green, blue, pink on front, different or darker color on back.

1877-1887 chocolate brown, green or black

1882-1888 face of buff color, matte finish, back creamy yellow, glossy.

Borders & designs on the cards

1861-1880 red or gold, single or double lines on the face of the card.

1863-1868 oval frame around picture, printed or embossed.

1870-1900 straight edges, gilded or plain

1880-1900 beveled edges, gilded or plain

1881-1888 light geometric designs on the back of the card.

1884-1885 wide gold borders

1889-1896 rounded corner rule of single line

1890-1892 metallic green or gold impressed border

1894-1900 notched or scalloped edges

1896- ? impressed outer border, no color added

Card corners

1858-1871 square on light weight card stock

1871-1910 rounded on heavier stock

1894-1910 square on heavy board, possibly scalloped or notched sides


1860-1868 CDVs: simple Grecian columns, a chair

1870-1885 Rustic painted backdrops, stones, wood fences, paper mache props

1875-1930 backdrops of famous places (Niagra Falls), a beach or other paper mache props

Photographer's Imprints

1860-1862 small single line imprint on back of card

1860-1900 small typeset imprint on front of card, usually below picture, sometimes additional lines on reverse

1861-1866 2 or 3 lines imprinted vertically on back. Between 1863 and 1866 there were statements included "Duplicates Can Be Had" or "Negatives Preserved", etc.

1863-1867 3 or more lines, larger characters, additional information

1868-1882 larger simple imprints horizontally on the reverse only

1870-1900 typeset imprints, fancy fonts, mixed fonts. Can be very ornate and take up the whole back of the card (usually vertically).

Tax Stamps were required from August 1, 1864 to August 1866. A 1 cent stamp was used for very cheap cards from March 1865 to August 1866.

Post Cards with photos began in 1910 and were in favor until about 1925.

Research the Photographer. If the photographer's name and city are on the photograph, you have another way to check for approximate dates. Contact the library in that area for copies of the city directories. The directories will list the professional photographers. Photographers often changed their logos by adding "& son" or a new partner so be sure to check a number of directories for the exact logo on your photograph. If your family used the same photographer for a number of years, the changes in the logo will help you pinpoint the date of the photo.

What Else Do I Need To Look At?

Hairstyles and Fashions. The style of dress can also indicate a period of time. People sitting for portraits usually wore their "best" clothes, in the latest style they had. Hairstyles and men's facial hair went in and out of vogue. Keep in mind that fashion flowed from Europe to the east coast cities and across the continent at a slow pace. Dresses were often taken apart and resewn into a new style. Mens ties changed as well as lapel widths. Sleeves were loose or fitted for both men and women and women's necklines rose and fell in the dictates of "fashion". The following list is offered to give you a general idea of what to look for in different years but the dates of fashion are not written in stone. For instance, capri pants are currently back in fashion and who knows when the leisure suit will return. Hairstyle for men and women, as always, was a personal choice as was moustaches and beards for men. Use your library to find books on the history of fashion to help you narrow your focus.


1840's Women-sleeves tight on upper arm, fuller below elbow with undersleeves loose & visible. Back closures on V-shaped bodice with rigid construction. Sloping shoulder line, round neckline. Mitts (fingerless gloves) with formal attire. White, wide collars tapered to V in back. Hair parted in middle and pulled to bun in back but ears covered. Watch & pencil chains, hair jewelry, rings prominent. Earrings simple hoops or drops.


Men-Coats extra long, narrow sleeves, narrow cut, "sack coat" of unlined linen or cotton, unfitted, untailored. Large buttons, vests over white shirts, ties of modest width were soft & tied in horizontal bow knot.

1855-1865 Women-big skirts using crinolines and hoops, dropped sleeves. Undersleeves were open at the wrist. Hair parted in the middle, pulled tight on the top of the head and twisting it into buns over the ears.


Men-wide lapels, double breasted jackets, scarf ties. Longish hair covering the ears, sticking out. Moustaches, sideburns, some in the style called "muttonchops".


1870-1875 Women-bodices and skirts were adorned with ruffles, bows, frills and tiers. The front of the skirt was flatter because the material was being pulled back to make a bustle. The sleeves on the bodice were fitted. Hair curls dropped behind the ears and bangs were fashionable.

Men-jackets and trousers were unmatched. Ties were still of the scarf type. The hair was shorter but still wispy over the ears. A very defined side part is noticeable.


1880 Women-apron type drape across the front of the skirt appeared. Many folds in the material of the overskirt were pulled to the back to create a bustled effect but the bustle was on the way out. Bodice was tight, using boning and sleeves were narrow.


1890 Women-the bustle has disappeared and the hourglass shape was in. High necklines of white lace set into bodice.


Men-4 button cut-away type coat, narrow collars. Jackets becoming tight to the body with narrow sleeves. Collars were stiff with small points. "Little Lord Fauntleroy" suits for little boys.


1895 Women-high collars, cinched waists, puffy "leg-o-mutton" sleeves, tight at wrist. Skirts long and full but with no bustle. Peplums on jackets, less boning in bodice which were still almost form fitting. Hair is upswept and poofy (Gibson Girl).


Men-short hair, ears showing. High stiff collars. Vest buttoned high, tie barely showing. Some jackets with small collars, others with fuller lapels. Jackets sleeves tight and sleeves short to show cuffs. Beginning of the longer tie.


Facial Features Once you have determined the approximate dates of the photograph and you have estimated the age of the people/person in the photo, it is time to get out your genealogy. By the process of elimination you can find ancestors that will fit into the time frame you have created. Now is the time to start analyzing facial features. The child in the 1860 photo may turn out to be the adult person in the 1890 photo


Look closely at the faces. Compare the parts of the face that don't change with age--the slant of the eyebrows and how they fit over the eyes. Are the eyes deep set? Lips get thinner as we age but does the mouth turn up at the corners? The folds in the ear are very distinctive and are a great clue provided you can see them. Noses grow as we age but the bumps, hooks and nostrils remain recognizable. Is the chin pointed and jutting or rounded with a cleft? If you have a family portrait, compare the children with the parents. Look for similarities in facial structure such as high cheek bones, round or angular features. Moles may or may not help. Photographers, even in those days, could touch up photographs to eliminate blemishes


A few words of caution: the dates given here are not absolutes. Photographers were (and are)creative individualists. They were also very practical about money and used up their supplies before advancing to a newer presentation.


Bibliography Internet sites: 2009, no longer available. Archive:Vol. 15 #5 9/1/1997


Alison Gernsheim, 'Victorian and Edwardian Fashion A Photographic Survey', New York 1963


Joan L. Severa, 'Dressed for the Photographer', The Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio & London, England, 1995


O. Henry Mace, "Collector's Guide to Early Photographs", 2nd edition, Krause Publications, 700 E. State St. Iola, WI 54990, 1999

Addendum: I have devised a chart that you may wish to use to help you narrow your research. I hope it helps. It is added separately so you can make copies for individual photos. You can get it here.