Understanding 19th Century Photographs
A short talk about various aspects of the art of understanding family photographs, particularly those from the 19th century. A book such as Robert Polls "Dating Nineteenth Century Photographs" will help to fix a date for those elements of the photograph listed below.
Remember that in the 19th century in particular, photographs were expensive and took time to arrange with the photographer and/or studio as well as the sitters. Generally, there was a special reason for the photograph, try to work out what was the occasion.
Aspects of the Photograph
- Print & Format
- Types of Mount and/or Frame
- Studio/Photographer Identification
- Women's Dress Fashions
- Women's Hair & Hats
- Children's Clothes
- Men's Clothing
- Men's Hats, Hair & Neck Clothes
- The Occasion being Celebrated
Print and Format
- Is the picture printed on glass?
- Is the picture printed on metal?
- If on paper, is it black & white or sepia tones?
- If b & w is it good contrast or shades of grey?
- If coloured, is this done by hand?
- What type is the paper, thick, thin, postcard?
- Square, landscape, portrait, circular, vignette?
N.B. some types of processing reverse the image!
Daguerreotypes c.1841 – early 1860s (most common c.1845-55)
Ambrotypes (collodion positives) c.1852-1890s (most common 1855-early 1860s)
Another unique picture, the ambrotype was a negative image on a glass plate, backed with black varnish ( shellac ) or velvet to create a positive photograph. Image may be reversed.
Cartes de visite c.1858-1919 (most common c.1860-1908)
The small carte de visite , measuring around 10cms x 6.5cms, was the first commercially produced card-mounted photographic print.
Cabinet Prints c.1866-1919 (most common late 1870s-c.1910)
In 1866 the cabinet photograph was introduced – another print mounted onto card, but, measuring around 16.5cms x 11.5cms including the mount, over twice the size of the cdv.
Tintypes (ferrotypes) In Britain 1870s-1940s
The tintype, or ferrotype , is identifiable as a photographic image struck directly onto an iron plate. Image reversed.
Portrait postcards c.1902-1940s
As its name suggests the size of postcards, with space for message and address etc on the reverse.
Types of mount
- What size is the mount, in inches?
- What thickness is the mount card?
- Are the corners round or square?
- What colour is the card, soft or stronger, dark?
- What lettering style is used on the front?
- What is the design on the back – plain or fancy?
- Does the reverse include birds, plants, fans etc?
- Does the mount or frame seem to be missing?
- Is the photographer identified on the front or back?
- Is the name/address listed anywhere?
- Are any dates of awards, exhibitions given?
- Is any royal warrant claimed?
- Is business in Post Office/Kelly's directories?
- Taken in the studio, at home or outdoors?
- Background: screens, stands, props etc.?
- Furniture: e.g. chairs, benches, leather, or plush?
- A large or small group of people?
- An individual?
- Height: full, three-quarter, half, head &neck?
- Is anything displayed, books, trophies?
- Are there any flowers/bouquets on display?
- Are the hands and rings prominently displayed?
- Any other unusual aspects?
- Family likenesses between faces?
Women's Dress Fashions
- Dresses or skirts with bodices?
- Corsets, crinolines, bustles, trains?
- Blouses, ruffs, necklines?
- Buttons plain or ornamental?
- Sleeves, long, short, or in between?
- Sleeves, narrow, wide, or both – also cuffs?
- Gloves, worn or held in hands?
- Skirts full, narrow, long, short etc.
Women's Hair & Hats
- Ringlets, loops or coils of hair, extra hair?
- Bun placement, central, back of head, top of head?
- Central parting, ears covered, ears exposed?
- Plain or ornate style; fringe: plain or crimped?
- Bonnet or indoor cap?
- Pork pie hat, small hat, boaters for women?
- High neckline, pie-crust frill, small collar, brooches?
- Varied neckline, frills, scarves, jabots?
- Christening robes?
- Boys wore dresses until 'breeched' circa age four.
- Sailor suits – boys, sailor skirts/tops – girls?
- Ribbons or frills, skirts layered or flounced?
- Short crinolines showing pantaloons – girls?
- Knickerbockers or “Little Lord Fauntleroy” look?
- Smocked Yoke dresses, Scottish look, e.g. plaids?
- Plain, elaborate or complicated girls styles?
- Frock or morning coat, Dress suit or Lounge suit?
- Lapels long or short, wide or narrow?
- Everyday or working clothes?
- Waistcoat high or low fronted?
- Norfolk jacket, reefer jacket?
- Trousers wide/narrow, pinstripe, creases, turn-ups?
- Shoes, boots?
- Walking stick, cane, riding whip?
Men's Hats, Hair & Neck clothes
- Top hat, how high, what crown?
- Top hat brim - flat, wide, narrow?
- Boater, homburg, bowler etc style?
- Collar height?
- Cravat, large/loose, or narrow tie?
- Shoes square or pointed, spats?
- Hair short or long?
- Beard and/or moustache style?
- If uniform, Army or Navy?
- Dress or service uniform?
- Reserve or full time?
- Cap or other headgear?
- Regimental badges on cap, sleeve, or tunic?
- Insignia of rank of sleeves, shoulder?
- Belts, tassels, swords, guns, pouches?
- Puttees and boots, cavalry boots, spurs?
The Occasion being Celebrated?
- Girls' “coming of age”?
- 21st Birthday, or other, flowers/jewellery?
- School, college or work event?
- Engagement (spot the ring), maybe girl only?
- Wedding or anniversary (beware assumptions)?
- Mourning, generally females?
- Going off to war?
- We know the family line of the sitter(s).
- We can estimate the date of the photo.
- We know the location where it was taken.
- We can guess the status of the sitter(s).
- We can guess the relationship between sitters.
- We can guess a likely occasion.
Match all the above to the individuals in your family tree and you may be able to put a name to the person!