In my earlier article on how to date old photographs, I mentioned that you should see what kind of photo it is in the first place. The size, format, paper type and other little factors can help you figure out its age. Now I’ll get into a little more detail so you can establish what kind of photo you have.
Over the history of photography, there have been 3 materials for photographs. They are paper or cardboard, metal and glass. Of the three, varieties of paper and cardboard are the most common, and that is what I’m going to focus on for this article since that is likely what you are looking at. Paper photos came in certain styles or sizes over the years, with 3 general formats: the carte-de-visite, the cabinet card and the photo postcard.
During the time frames we’re talking about, these would all be professionally-taken photos because it was uncommon for the average person to have their own camera. With the advent of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, people started to take their own photos and these distinctive formats were lost. But for pre-1900 pictures, you can categorize them like this
Usually just called cartes, this little photos were glued to a backing of cardboard and measured about 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches. They were all the same size so that they could fit into the pre-made slots in the photo albums of the day.
The backing was often decorated with the name of the photographer, and the early ones date to 1859. These ones would have had square corners. In 1872, they started being printed with rounded corners so they would slip into the photo albums easier. But square cartes came back into fashion again in 1900 when people stopped using the albums as commonly. These later photos would have also had a thicker backing. Carte-de-visite went out of production in the early 1900s.
Our next type of photograph is the cabinet card, which was very similar to the carte-de-visite but bigger. These also had a cardboard backing and would have the name of the photographer on the back. The average measurement for a cabinet card was 6 1/2 by 4 inches and they started to be produced in the late 1860s. They were the most popular after the 1870s though. Most of the early cabinet cards had rounded corners but after 1900 you could find some with round or square corners.
This is a simple enough format to understand. The idea of sending photos through the mail was popular starting in 1900 so photos could be printed as postcards. They were standard postcard size and had space on the back for a message, address and stamp. Some used ones may have postmarks to further help you with your dating. Photo postcards were made later than the others, up until the late 1940s.
So if you are trying to figure out more about the old photos, knowing which of these types of photographs you have is the first step in pinpointing a date range.