Vintage Photo Characteristics That Can Help You Date Old Pictures

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If you’re a passionatefamily history buff like us, everyone from your mother to your Great AuntSally knows that they can pawn off boxes of old family photos for youto peruse to your heart’s content. Sifting through vintage photos can be afamily historian’s dream, that is, until you find out that you just can’tseem to identify the time period in which certain photos were taken. Much likegenealogical resources and classes are helpful to discovering and sharingyour family story, knowing some photography history can also be beneficial whenit comes to identifying origins of vintage photos.

The following commontypes of vintage photos, their photographic processes andcharacteristics could help you positively identify some of yourlong-lost ancestors.

Common Types of 19th Century Vintage Photos

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1. Daguerreotypes

Photo credit: The Art Part

The daguerreotype wascreated by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and is known by photography experts asthe first practical form of photography. Daguerreotypes were produced on a thincopper metal support that had a polished coating of silver that wasmirror-like. Daguerreotypes were sealed in glass for protection. InAmerica, daguerreotypes were often placed in hinged, wooden cases with paper orleather coverings.

  • Height of Popularity: 1839-1860
  • Distinguishing Features: They can either take on the look of a negative or a positive depending on how the light hits them and the angle in which you’re viewing them. Also look for their highly-polished silver support.

2. Salt Prints  (Talbot’sProcess)

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In 1841, William HenryFox Talbot patented the process of salt printing — the first photographicprocess that used sodium chloride to make photos more light-sensitive. Saltprinting was also the first process to utilize both a negative and a positiveallowing photographers to create prints of larger quantities.

  • Height of Popularity: 1839-1860
  • Distinguishing Features: This photo type can encounter serious fading problems, so if you find a very faded old photo coupled with a smooth yet dull surface, lack of fine detail and a silver image inside the actual fibers of the photo’s support paper, you could have a salt print on your hands.

3. Albumen Prints

Photo credit: Henry Art Gallery

In 1850, Louis-DesireBlanquart Evrard improved upon Talbot’s salt prints by introducing albumenpaper. Photographers would coat a thin sheet of paper with egg white whichwould hold light-sensitive silver salt on the surface of the paper, preventingimage fading. Once it was dry, albumen prints were used just like salted-paperprints and the image would form by the darkening properties of the sun on thechemicals. Most of the surviving photographs from the 19th century are onalbumen paper.

  • Height of Popularity: 1855-1890
  • Distinguishing Features: Albumen prints take on a rich, purple-brown hue. When you examine these photos, look for paper fibers through the albumen overlay. You can also usually see a fine lateral cracking across the glossy photo surface. The support is typically thin and also coated with albumen.

4. Carte de Visite (CDVs)

Photo credit: Historical Indulgences

Albumen prints were oftenmounted on cardboard carte-de-viste (CDVs). Introduced in the 1850s in Paris,France by Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi, CDVs were very popular in both theUnited States and Europe until the turn of the 20th century.

  • Height of Popularity: 1860-1890
  • Distinguishing Features: You can distinguish a CDV from other card mounts mostly by the size: 2.5 x 4 inches (63 x 100 mm) — or slightly less at times. Look also for the photographer’s imprint and the type of image itself (most CDVs are portraits). All of these characteristics can help you determine a correct date within just a few years of the photo’s origin.

5. Ambrotypes

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In 1854, the ambrotypebecame a popular photographic print method which used the wet-plate collodionprocess to create a positive photograph on glass. Each photo was unique andcould not be duplicated — much like using a Polaroid camera.

  • Height of Popularity: 1854-Mid-1860s
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for dark purple, blue or red glass support. These photos may also be found presented on a mount with a case just like daguerreotypes. You can easily distinguish a daguerreotype from an ambrotype since ambrotypes always appear positive when viewing from any angle.

6. Tintypes

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Introduced in 1856, thetintype — also known as a melainotype or ferrotype — was produced on a plate ofthin metal. And just like the ambrotype and daguerreotype, the method didn’tuse negatives and was directly exposed in the camera. Some small tintypes werealso placed in cardboard mounts much like the CDV.

  • Height of Popularity: 1856 – 1900
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for a thin, metallic plate holding the positive image to distinguish a tintype from an ambrotype. Also try to look for mount plates that are brown or red. The most common size to look for is 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

7. Cabinet Cards

Photo credit: Image Event

Introduced in 1866, thecabinet card, like the CDV, was an albumen-coated, card-mounted photographwhich was also quite popular in America until the1890s.

  • Height of Popularity: 1870 – 1890s
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for card-mounted photos that are 4.25 x 6.5 inches (108 x 164 mm). Most are portraits and don’t include the name of the subject. An extensive logo can typically be found on the back of the card.

8. Hyalotype

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Invented in the 1850s,hyalotypes were used in “Magic Lanterns” where their positive images on glassplates were projected onto screens. They were widely popular until modernslides came along in the 1950s.

  • Height of Popularity: 1875-1950s
  • Distinguishing Features: If you come across old family slides, just know that the most common size of a hyalotype is 192 mm x 83 mm. They were also always produced in black and white, yet some could be hand-tinted.

Have you come across anyof these popular vintage photo types during your research? Let usknow in the comments! Now that you’re equipped with vintage photo knowledge,you may be able to add those previously unknown ancestors and their stories toyour CrestleafFamily Tree!

 Thanks to Crestleaf for this post!

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April 6, 2015
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