Discovering more than meets the eye: dating old photographs

on Friday, 17 May 2013. Posted in Photography

How often do we discover old photographs or family albums tucked away or which have recently come into our possession but which frustratingly contain little or no information about their subjects? It is possible to discover more about these images than meets the eye, if you know what to look out for.
I hope that the following suggestions will be helpful when looking at clothing but the most important element is to look carefully, analysing each small detail. Everything within the photo is a clue to help us in the process of indentifying our ancestors.

The photographic process developed through the nineteenth century and must have had a tremendous effect on a family, as they began making up their first family albums and displaying images of each other. The type of pose can be an indication of period; the 1850s and 1860s tend to include a full length figure, sometimes seated, but by the 1870s the camera was moving closer to the person, perhaps producing a three quarter length image and including a prop, such as a lectern or a chair. By the 1890s the head and shoulders shot became more common. A ‘vignette’ where the background is white and the head and shoulders are almost oval in shape is also typical of the 1890s.

Costume and dress can also be a useful indicator. The sewing machine was in use by the middle of the century and this gradually had an impact on styles of dress and particularly pattern cutting. Dress for women became more complex in its construction, producing silhouettes like the crinoline in the 1850s, a wide bell shaped skirt supported by a framework made of linen and wood or steel, topped with a tight bodice often fastening at the neck. The favourite hair style of that time had a centre parting and a bun at the back and indoor caps were often worn by married women. In the 1860s trimming as a means of decoration became popular. You will find it decorating hems of skirts, sleeves and bodices; and sleeves were set lower on the shoulder indicating a natural sloping shoulder line. The shape then gradually developed into the ‘bustle’, a move to emphasise the back of the dress, also with a framework underneath, and with a much flatter front and a longer bodice. This often involved draping of the fabric to the sides of the skirt and by the 1870s hair was pulled back from the face and piled on the top of the head to emphasise this ‘backward move’. The 1880s saw a slightly different bustle shape emerge, the ‘princess’ line came to a point at the front of the bodice and the bustle at the back came from the small of the back, slightly higher than in the 1880s. Hair styles became slightly simpler and the fringe was popular, particularly crimped or straggled. By the 1890s the tailored suit came into use worn over a blouse and with a straighter shape to the skirt. The Edwardian period, the 1900s, saw the ‘S’ bend silhouette achieved with a tight corset, evolving into a much straighter tube style dress and a shorter hem line, before the straight drop waisted dresses of the 1920s became fashionable when legs and shoes are clearly visible.


Men’s clothing usually involved a version of the suit for the special photographic pose; in the 1850s the suits were quite close fitting to the body, often with peg top trousers tapering to the hem and worn with a patterned waistcoat and a high collar. By the 1860s a version of the lounge suit existed with three matching pieces, often worn with a thinner tie. Slim fitting suits in the 1880s gradually made way for a looser version by the end of the 19th century and turn ups became popular as well as creases in trousers, thanks largely to the invention of a trouser press. Hats gradually developed into a formal item and had lower crowns in the 1860s and 1890s with bowlers and straw boaters popular towards the end of the century.

Children, who often feature in photographs, generally reflected the style of the adult; the older the child, the longer the skirt or trousers, is a useful rule to apply. Plaids and checks were considered suitable fabrics for children’s dress in the 1860s and 1870s and this decade also saw the popularity of the sailor suit for boys and girls. Boots were buttoned until the 1880s and then we start to see laces come into more common use.

While the latest fashions might be copied by the younger members of a family, the elders may stick to a style that was popular in their youth and simple working dress is quite hard to date accurately.

Jewellery can also help. Remember to look for a wedding ring or a favourite brooch that may have been passed down to a daughter. And the background may help too, especially if there is a visible building.

The photo above is an example of Edwardian dress from my own family collection c1908 reflecting the larger families of that time, twelve children in this case. And it also indicates a relaxed pose; earlier photographs tend to look a little more formal and stiff. With the help of the 1901 census it is fairly easy to identify the family members.

At the Wiltshire and Swindon History centre we have a number of publications to help you, located in our Heritage Collection, as well as access to the census and local trade directories.
If you can access the back of the photograph you may also find a Photographers name which can be checked with a local trade directory, and best of all, a hand written description of the time, telling us exactly who we are looking at and in what year....bliss!!

Joy Rutter
Local Studies Assistant


Accredited Archive Service