When confronted by old, undated family photographs, it is so easy to just put them back in a box or album and forget about them. But with a little detective work, it is sometimes possible to date them quite accurately.In the last Heritage Paper, the major categories of early photographs were outlined, so firstly try to place the family portrait into one of these groups, then the problem of dating must be tackled by painstaking comparison of the details of costume, accessories and background. This is best done with the help of photographs for which a date is known, rather than a book of Victorian costume as fashion in pioneer communities was often many years behind those of Europe.Women’s dress, in particular, can usually be dated at least within a ten-year span. The design of sleeves, cut of a skirt, detail of a collar and arrangement of hair or cap are all important clues. A crinoline will be the 1860s, a leg-of-mutton sleeve the mid 90s, bustles in the 70s and 80s. Young women’s clothes provide a better clue to prevailing fashion than dress of the elderly. In men’s dress also there were marked changes in fashion — the width and shape of lapels for instance should be examined and compared with photographs of a known date.Another approach to dating the photographs is possible when advertisements are included on the portrait at the base or on the reverse. Many early photographers only existed in business for a few years, so if a name is included, research within city directories, newspapers and city records can often pinpoint dates of business. This Heritage Paper lists the photographers of Hamilton and area, c1850-1860, who may have recorded the inhabitants of this area.
“Photographs taken in all the latest styles and the new style of Rembrant”
Research material taken from City of Hamilton Directories 1853-80, advertisements and personal photographs.
Originally published in Heritage Happenings, February 1982.
© The Waterdown-East Flamborough Heritage Society 1982, 2020