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Dating vintage photographs: Genealogy research in action

Figuring out certain aspects of your family tree can seem like a real puzzle, especially when any photographs you have aren’t labeled and lack any obvious clues (like a calendar, a dated vehicle registration sticker or a street sign). But when you do manage to fit a few of the pieces together, just like a real puzzle, the whole picture becomes clearer. Here’s a look at how one real-life photographic mystery was solved!

Finding clues in old photographs

Pick a picture – any picture

The antique portrait shown above came to me recently in an unmarked box of vintage photos left behind by my grandmother more than 25 years ago. Unfortunately, there was no one left in my family to help identify the hundreds of faces on the thousands of photographs in the box. (To make matters more difficult, the majority of the images were tiny snapshots from a Folding Pocket Kodak camera, and measured only 1- 5/8 x 2-1/2 in size.)

My first job was to scan the pictures on to my computer (get the step-by-step how to for digitizing your photos here), and then set about sorting them using the information I had. Since only about one percent of the prints had anything written on them, my starting point was finding the few people I could identify, and hope that one thing would lead to another.

Over time, I came to realize how important the little things were in helping solve these riddles. I learned to pay close attention to what people were wearing, what they were doing, and what appeared in the backgrounds of the photos.

As a result, over the course of a year, I came to know my ancestors better than anyone else alive.

You can do it, too

Here’s a look at how I used even the tiniest details in a vintage photograph to help figure out at least a few of the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why.

I started by using Google and the resources I compiled for the article Dating vintage photographs by clothing & hairstyles to analyze specific elements. This is what I learned:

A) Check the people in the photo:

  1. The straw hat the man is wearing on the far right was in style from the late 1800s until the 1920s. See reference | Another
  2. The hat in the foreground is a Holmberg, popular in the early 1900s. See reference
  3. White bow ties were worn with evening dress at the turn of the century. See reference
  4. The men’s trousers are straight, uncreased and uncuffed — the style of the early 1900s. See reference
  5. A photo from 1902 shows the same types of skirts, blouses and neck bows on the women: See reference
  6. The blouses and skirts at the end of another reference page support an early 20th century timeline: See reference
  7. The hairstyles for the man and woman on the left conform to those common at the turn of the century. (Ditto mustache on older man, with none on the younger.) See reference
  8. The attire of both women most closely resembles the style shown on an example for 1903. See reference
  9. The silhouette of the dress on the woman at the left closely matches that of an Accordion Pleated Dress, which may narrow the timeline to 1905-1906. See reference
  10. Corsets (seen on the woman on the far left) were still popular in the early 1900s. See reference
  11. After 1907, corseted (wasp) waists became less extreme in favor of a straighter silhouette, which means this photo is likely pre-1907. See reference

B) COnsider the background details:

  1. Portions of the house we can see feature some Queen Anne-style design elements, particularly on the porch (note the corner brackets). See reference | Another
  2. From’s Architecture guide: “In American cities, smaller working-class homes were given patterned shingles, spindlework, extensive porches, and bay windows. Many turn-of-the-century houses are in fact hybrids, combining Queen Anne motifs with features from earlier and later fashions.” See reference

C) Study The photograph itself:

  1. The ornate embossing on the card stock the photo is mounted on is indicative of the early 1900s. See reference

On the next page: The result!


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