Dating Old Photographs

Photos are vital to genealogy collections

Photos are vital to genealogy collections

Our ancestors weren’t always that diligent about dating and labeling their photos, which can make us genealogists crazy when we discover old pictures with no information on them. But with a little skill and observation skills, you can narrow down the possible date range to have a better idea of when these mystery photos were taken.

If you don’t know the people in the photo either, then having a rough date approximation can help point you to the right generation of family to look at closer. It’s better than nothing. Without some sense of a date, you can easily lose track of whether you are looking at your grandmother or great-grandmother because they both looked so similar when they were both children.

Fashion styles are a common tool for establishing a date for a photo, especially during the 1800s when people didn’t take photos on their own. Pictures taken at a studio leaves you with no background items to help with your identification. So you have to look at the clothes. Of course, clothing styles aren’t exactly etched in stone so it’s a pretty rough guide at best. Certain styles lasted for decades and you can never tell how fashionable your ancestor was to begin with. Even if you can tell she is wearing a dress from the 1940s, maybe it was a 10-year old dress.

Women’s fashions are a better indicator than men’s because they changes so often and more obviously. Certain types of dresses, skirt lengths, hats, accessories can all tell a story. Websites like Fashion-Era have a great collection of vintage fashion photos that can help you place certain styles.


The type of photo can be another indicator, particularly for pre-1900 pictures. Some pictures were printed on cardboard, some on thin sheets of metal. Were there photographers names on the cards, or is it in the form of a postal postcard? Each type was common during a certain period, so check that out further.

In 1900, the Brownie camera was invented and by the 1950s, people were commonly taking their own family photos so you’ll find many more candid shots taken outside of the studio around then. Start looking at the backgrounds around this period, particularly any cars. Car styles are just as recognizable as clothing styles.

Also around the 1950s, the process of getting color photos was becoming more reasonably priced and family pictures started showing up in color. Another clue in your dating game. Generally after the 1950s, we are familiar enough with the photos and the fashion styles that they should be pretty easy to identify anyway.