Thursday, March 05, 2015

Women's History Month 2015: An Interview with

**Gena's Note: Today's resource is Let's face it, most genealogists LOVE vintage photos. The more info we can have about those photos, the better. So I asked my friend Gary W. Clark at to provide us with some information about dating vintage photos of women.

1889 Photo courtesy of Used with permission

Question: What should researchers consider when trying to date their vintage photos of female ancestors?

Answer: One approach is to determine when the 'type' of photograph was commonly used. Type can be described as the technology, such as a tintype or the cabinet card. Different types were used in different eras. Narrowing the type of photograph to a time frame will give you a general time-frame of when the picture was taken.

Being aware of fashion eras can help date a photograph. For example, the "Gibson Girl" look defined nearly a generation of style and fashion beginning in the late 1890s. Women's styles mimicked the illustrations by Charles Gibson in Harper's Weekly, Collier's, and Life magazine well into the 20th century. Comparing women's styles to period newspaper advertisements and magazine illustrations helps identify when a certain look was popular. Also, there are many websites that cover fashion by years, I frequently use these.

One caveat to using fashion and style is economics or location of the photo. Was the family poor, comfortable, or well off?  Did they live in a big city or a rural area? Their ability to afford the 'latest' style, and the lack of peer group pressure to adopt the styles, resulted in the photographic subjects often wearing clothes and exhibiting styles that could be many years out of fashion. One trick that helps overcome this influence is if the photo is a family picture. Try dating the youngest person’s clothes; a teenage girl is most likely to wear the latest style, even if it was homemade.

Question: For those of us not lucky enough to have 19th century photos, how do we learn more about our early 20th century photos? Especially those that are seemingly random snapshots of everyday life.

Answer: Snapshots from the 20th century can be difficult to date, but there are some guidelines. Until about 1910, most photographs needed to be mounted on stiff mounting boards, so if an early snapshot is NOT mounted, it is usually after 1910. From 1920 onward, many snapshots look the same. Pay special attention to the clothes, and especially to background objects; Cars can be a great clue as to when the photograph was taken if you can tell the model year. That doesn’t mean the picture was taken in the car’s year, but it was taken at least after the car was made.

In the 1940s and 50s many snapshots were trimmed with scalloped or wavy edges. The 1930s and 40s saw the white space around some prints printed with framing artwork.

Question: Women often show up in photos wearing jewelry. Sometimes that jewelry is just decorative but other times it's representative of an organization. Any tips on using this to date photos?

Answer: This is fun and interesting area of study which can yield some great information. Sorority, fraternal auxiliaries, and service organizations such as Women’s Relief Corp that provided assistance to Civil War veterans, all produced emblems, jewelry, ribbons, that were proudly worn. Many times, the design of the piece changed over the years. Searching the internet for examples of the item may help you narrow the dates it was available.

The key to identifying one of these is to scan the photograph at a very high resolution. Depending on the size of the photo and how big the subject is, the scan may need to be 1200 DPI or even higher. This is akin to using a powerful magnifying glass. There is not always enough detail in the photo to read the object, but, the design can tell you a lot. If you have a family heirloom piece of jewelry, it is always exciting to find it in a very old photograph.

Question: What tools do you have on your website to help learn more about dating photographs?

Answer: The free website is a great place to start dating your photos. No other site offers the History and Identification tips that are easy to apply to your pictures. A big bonus is what we call the Gallery of 1,000 Images, which is now over 1,200 vintage photos. The Gallery is a collection of dated photographs presented in categories that you can simply pick and see all the photos for that era or subject. It is a database with categories that show you pictures by decades, back to the 1850s, photo types such as tintypes, clothing styles, hair styles, card characteristics, and many more. This tool lets you compare you photo to similar dated ones to help you arrive at a date.
Other tools include a library of case studies and informative articles on vintage photographs. All completely free.

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