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Dating old photos

The following article if from GRS Monthly Newsletter and is copyright 1998 by GRS. It is re-published here with permission of the author.

Contributed by Dave Rozzana (dave@classyimage.com)

By determining the type of photographic technique used to make your old family photos, it's possible to date, with reasonable accuracy, the date the original was created.

Following are the most common photographic processes. With this information, see if you can narrow-down the age of the photograph.

DAGUERREOTYPE (1839 - 1870, approx.)

The case resembled a double frame. Very decorative. The photo image is on a silver clad copper sheet which is attached to a sheet of glass by a foil-like brass decorative frame. This sealed packet was then force-fit into a special wood case and was often padded with velvet or silk. Many times, the silver image tarnishes with silver sulfide in the same way as silverware. The cost $5.00 (more than a weeks pay for most people).

CALOTYPE (1845 - 1855, approx.).

The first photographs on paper. A two-step process. The first step was to make a negative image on a light-sensitive paper. Step two was to make a contact [print] with a second sheet of sensitized paper to make a positive print. Calotypes were never widely popular, and most of those surviving are in museums. Apparently Talbot (the inventor) did not fully realize the importance of washing his prints long enough to remove all the residual chemicals, or perhaps his fixing was inadequate. Either fault leads to the same result fading image, discoloration, etc. These defects are now noticeable in many calotypes, some of which are today little more than pale yellow ghosts.

AMBROTYPE (1854 to the end of the Civil War)

The ambrotype is a thin negative image on glass made to appear as a positive by showing it against a black background. Similar to daguerreotype in assembly of parts 1- Outer protective case. 2- Backing of black paper, cloth, or metal. 3- The on-glass-image, emulsion to the front and black varnish on the back. 4- Brass die cut frame 5- Gilt border of thin brass to edge wrap the frame, glass, and backing. It was common for the ambrotype to be colored. Suggestions of rouge cheeks or lips suggested a person of substance. Buttons, watch chains, pendants, broaches were often tinted with color.
Disadvantages of ambrotypes
1. A very slow (up to 20 sec.) exposure, compared to 2 sec. for a daguerreotype.
2. The glass was very fragile. It couldn't withstand travel or being carried in a locket as a daguerreotype could. Advantage of the Ambrotypes Price. It could be sold profitably at a low price, approx. 25 cents. The cost of the ambrotype was less than half of the daguerreotype.

THE TINTYPE (1856 to W.W.II)

"The penny picture that elected a president".
Price- sold for a penny or less, making photography universally available. The cost of an image at the time the process became obsolete was about 25 cents.
1. Lighter and less costly to manufacture.
2. Camera was lighter and easier to handle.
3. Wouldn't shatter as a glass image photo would.
4. Could be colored or tinted.
As the public sought lower prices, the cases (which cost more than the finished photographs) were eliminated. In their place, paper folders of the size of the then popular card photographs were used for protection. Instead of a glass cover, the photographer covered the tintype with a quick varnish to protect any tints or colors added to cheeks, lips, jewelry or buttons. Popularity The tintype was very popular during the Civil War because every soldier wanted to send a picture of himself with his rifle and sword home. They could be mailed home safely without fear of shattering. The tintype actually does not contain any tin, but is made of thin black iron. It is sometimes confused with ambrotypes and daguerreotypes, but is easily distinguishable from them by the fact that a tintype attracts a small magnet.


Introduction 1856 - 1860.

The earliest tintypes were on heavy metal (0.017 inches thick) that was never again used. They are stamped "Neff's Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56" along one edge. Many are found in gilt frames or in the leather or plastic (thermomolded) cases of the earliest ambrotypes. Size range from one-sixth plate to full plate. Civil War Period 1861 - 1865. Tintypes of this time are primarily one-sixth and one-fourth plate and are often datable by the Potter's Patent paper holders, adorned with patriotic stars and emblems, that were introduced during the period. After 1863 the paper holders were embossed rather than printed. Uncased tintypes have been found with canceled tax stamps adhered to the backs. The stamps date these photographs to the period of the Wartime Retail Tax Act, 1 Sept. 1864 to 1 Aug. 1866.

Brown Period 1870 - 1885.

In 1870 the Phoenix Plate Co. began making plates with a chocolate-tinted surface. They created a sensation among the photographers throughout the country, and the pictures made on the chocolate-tinted surface soon became the rage. During this period "rustic" photography also made its debut with its painted backgrounds, fake stones, wood fences and rural props. Neither the chocolate tint nor the rustic look are to be found in pre-1870 tintypes.

Gem Period 1863 - 1890.

Tiny portraits, 7/8 by 1 inch, or about the size of a small postage stamp, became available with the invention of the Wing multiplying cameras. They were popularized under the trade name Gem and the Gem Galleries offered the tiny likeness at what proved to be the lowest prices in studio history. Gem Galleries flourished until about 1890, at which time the invention of roll film and family cameras made possible larger images at modest cost. It was no longer necessary to visit a studio that specialized in the tiny likeness. Gem portraits were commonly stored in special albums with provision for a single portrait per page. Slightly larger versions also existed. Some Gems were cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, tie pins, rings and even garter clasps.

Carnival Period 1875 - 1930.

Itinerant photographers frequently brought the tintype to public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. They came equipped with painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, a beach, a boat, and other novelty props for comic portraits. Postmortems. In the nineteenth century it was common to request a photographer to make a deathbed portrait of a loved one.

THE CABINET CARD (approx. 1866 - 1906).

A card stock product, nearly four times the size of previous photographs on card stock. The larger size created new problems of photographic quality. Flaws that were not obvious in the smaller cards now became very visible. This gave rise to a new skill of photo retoucher. Success in retouching led to innovations in the darkroom and at the camera. Diffusion of the image reduced the need for retouching. This led to verbal skirmishes between photographers who insisted in "truth in photography". Opponents called retouching degenerating, demoralizing, and untruthful practices. Cabinet cards can be further dated by color of stock, borders, corners and size.


The earliest American-made cabinet cards have been dated only to the post-Civil War period, beginning in 1866. Design and colors of these cards followed those of the cards of that time. Cabinet cards are rarely found after 1906.
Card Colors
1866 - 1880White card stock of a light weight
1880 - 1890 Different colors for face and back of mounts
1882 - 1888 Face of buff, matte-finished, with a back of creamy-yellow, glossy.
1866 - 1880 Red or gold rules, single and double lines.
1884 - 1885 Wide gold borders.
1885 - 1892 Gold beveled edges.
1889 - 1896 Rounded corner rule of single line.
1890 - 1892 Metallic green or gold impressed border.
1896 Impressed outer border, without color.
1866 - 1880 Square, lightweight mount.
1880 - 1890 Square, heavy board with scalloped sides. Photographs mounted on card stock

The most popular mount sizes were

  • Carte-de-visite 4 1/4 x 2 1/2
  • Cabinet card 6 1/2 x 4 1/2
  • Victoria 5 x 3 1/4
  • Promenade 7 x 4
  • Boudoir 8 1/2 x 5 1/4
  • Imperial 9 7/8 x 6 7/8
  • Panel 8 1/4 x 4
  • Stereograph 3 x 7


last changed: June 13, 1998
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