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Genealogy research: What vintage photograph formats can tell you

Nancy Price co-founded SheKnows.com in 1999, and now serves as the site's Executive Editor. In the midst of growing several award-winning websites over the past decade, she also served as the editor-in-chief of two national print magazin...

Vintage pic sizes, shapes & styles

Regardless of how washed-out or otherwise unidentifiable the subject matter may be, most of the time, you can still extract some information about a vintage photograph's origin simply by knowing a little about the history of photography. Here are some photo-themed genealogy resources to help you and everyone else on your family tree dig down to your roots!

Vintage photo formats

vintage photo formats for GENEALOGY RESEARCH

History of Photography methods/processes
A very informative illustrated introduction to several types of photography, with helpful information on "cased images" — meaning Daguerreotypes, Ambrotype and Tintypes — as well as details about cabinet cards, CDVs and picture postcard formats.

Postcard printing processes in close-up
See high-resolution scans of several vintage postcard printing processes, so you can check out the details that can help you identify a particular photography process — and weed out the pretenders to the throne... or to the family tree, as the case may be.

Categorized vintage photo collections
These user-contributed photographs are grouped by regions, subjects, themes, photo types, eras, and a few other topics. The images here at Flickr can help provide visual frames of reference, and some descriptions are very well-detailed, too.

Dating vintage photographs by image format
This quick guide covers the earliest days of photography, from 1840 to 1900.

Cartes de Visite (CDV)

The carte de visite was an extremely popular style of photograph that hit the US in 1860. The format was quite small, however, which led to it being pretty much replaced by the larger cabinet cards about a decade later. A carte de visite image was 2-1/8" x 3-1/2", and was mounted on a 2-1/2" x 4" card.

Cabinet card portrait

Cabinet cards

Cabinet cards were the go-to style for portraits starting in about 1866, and they remained a dominant choice for formal photographs for nearly 20 years. (See an example at right.)

The name "cabinet card" is thought to have been used because they were considered to be the ideal size for displaying in the home (in or on a cabinet). The wafer-thin photo layer was mounted on a piece of cardstock measuring 4-1/4" x by 6-1/2". Typically, some space was left at the bottom of the card so there was room for the photographer's insignia to appear.

Real photo postcards (RPPC)

The real photo postcard format was essentially just a picture printed on a blank postcard, but was very popular — and affordable — as the photos could be shot with the first mass-produced pocket camera, the Kodak 3A. The finished product (three examples at right) measured 3-1/2" x 5-1/2".

RPPC formats

Info about mounted photos (multiple types)

More helpful references:

Film dating resources

 


 

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