Caterham & District

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
  • Setting/Composition
  • Women's Dress Fashions
  • Women's Hair & Hats
  • Children's Clothes
  • Men's Clothing
  • Men's Hats, Hair & Neck Clothes
  • Uniforms
  • 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!

Print Dates

Print Dates

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?

Studio/Photographer Identification

  • 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?

Children's clothes

  • 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?

Men's Clothing

  • 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?

  • Christening?
  • 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!