Identifying Photos

Author: Mark W. Swarthout
Published on: April 14, 2003

My apologies to any of you who attempted to read the ‘rough notes’ that were posted under this title earlier. I had edited the article, I ended up with several copies of the article in its various drafts and evidently deleted the wrong one! Here is what you were supposed to get!

Identifying Photos can be a challenge, particularly if you don't know the dates they were taken. By identifying the time frames, one can narrow down the possible individuals. Often the photo album or picture itself (Shudder! See Protecting the Records of our Past) is marked with a simple comment such as ‘Mother” or ‘My Grandmother.’ Without having more to work with, you are challenged to figure out just who’s mother or grandmother it is. This article will provide you with some sources that can help you identify the time frames. You should also note that many of the same tricks can be used to place paintings in the correct time frames.

Warning! Some of the sites listed below will be so interesting that you may lose hours of research time perusing their contents! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The Actual Photo

Daguerreotype - The first details of this process were made available in France in August of 1839. That will be the earliest possible date for what we would call a photograph. These images are one of a kind, the process did not allow copies to be made. The image is engraved by the process onto a metal plate. While the image created was very detailed, you should note that the photo is almost always in reverse, a mirror image of how you would normally see the person. This might lead to such discrepancies as not knowing which limb had been injured, or thinking someone was left handed, when they were actually right handed. Another item of note is that the process required the individual to be perfectly still for up to half an hour. Most people would be shown sitting for this reason and head rests were common. For the most part, this method was totally abandoned at the turn of the century.

Tin Types Actually the most popular method of photography in the US in the 1860’s and during the Civil War period. These mere again one of a kind shots that were printed on sheets of metal, not actually tin. Because of their ruggedness, they were good to mail to family and friends. There were superceded by the Glass Negative photography in the 1880’s, but could be found being used by street vendors into the 1950’s in some countries.

Cartes-de-visite – These were small visiting card portraits usually about 4 1/2 x 2 1/2". These were very popular in Europe in the 1850’s and 60’s.

In the early 1850’s negative created on glass were developed. Many of the images taken in the late 1800’s and even into the early 1900’s were done using glass plates. The images could then be reproduced in quantity.

History of Photography provides a good history of the processes and methods used to record people of the centuries. More detail can be found on the time frames of these methods.

Don't forget the obvious! Look for actual dates! Many of the old slides and photos have a date printed in the margins or on the back. The date was when the film was processed, so you know the picture was taken before that date! Sometimes the date is impressed into the cardboard of the slide mount, so holding the item at an angle to the light can make it more legible. A careful rubbing can also help.


Fashions are a big indication of time frames, more so with womens’ clothing then with mens’, but still valuable. Other than the face, the clothes were the most obvious part of a photograph. People got dressed up in their best and newest for their photos. This can provide clues that can put a photograph within a couple of years. The other thing to consider is the location that the photo was taken. Photos in New York City will be more contemporary than something taken in Lansing, Michigan in the same year. Here are a couple of great web sites to help date fashions:

Fashion Era Rich with detail. May take some digging, but it is very complete!

Lisa’s Fashion Drawings – Quick to find general ideas

Just as clothing styles change over time, so do hair styles.

Hair Styles and Hats. A photographic representation of the last century.

Costume Gallery Another good resource.

Eye glasses are another clue! Pince-nez, tortous shell frames, the heavy black plastic frames can all provide a clue. See the The History of Glasses for more info.

What else is in the picture? Particular buildings, in addition to helping identify the location, (Remember! Location, Location, Location!) The can narrow down dates, particularly if the date they were built (or modified, or burned down) is known. Hair styles are another thing to examine.


Automobiles, or the lack thereof, can be a time indicator. In addition to looking at the actual vehicles, take a look at the license plates. In some states the plates were carefully recorded and maintained for future reference. As an example, Nebraska issues vehicle registrations by county. It is common in many of the counties with a low population for a bank or insurance company to publish a free directory of license numbers and who they belong to. Look ups of these may be available through historical societies and libraries.

Uniforms and Medals

Those men (and women) in uniform! There are so many sites most specializing in a specific era or war period that I’m going to point you at Google to search: Google Search American Military Uniforms.


In grade school, they teach you to figure out the meanings of some words through the context of the sentence. The same can be true of the context of a photograph. If you have a scrap book put together by Mark Swarthout and the picture says, “My Mother” you have a pretty good idea of the identity of the subject. If there are newspaper clippings and other souvenirs mounted on the page, or stacked neatly with the photos, there is good circumstantial evidence as to when the picture was taken and perhaps who it was.

Good luck! I hope you are able to solve those little mysteries!

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Updated on 10/25/2005