Fashionable Ancestors: Dating Old Photographs

Genealogists collect photos. That is a fact! Sometimes, we are lucky enough to be the caretaker of lots of old family pictures, while other times, we feel fortunate to find ancestral photos online.

Do you have even one photo for which you can’t identify the time period in which it was taken? The good thing is that each photo tells us something about itself and its age. We just have to know what to look for.

First, the style of the photo itself greatly narrows down the date it was taken, but that is a different subject than today’s topic.

What most people look at first is the person or people in the photo. If the subject/s are people we have known in our lifetimes, dating the picture often easier, but not always.

Having one’s photograph taken was considered a very special occasion by our ancestors and they dressed in their finest outfits – aka their most fashionable clothes – to look their best.

The second important fashion accessory, so to speak, was one’s hairstyle.

Our ancestors’ clothing and locks greatly help in narrowing down photography dates.

I will be listing some online resources in this article, but I would strongly recommend two books, both relatively inexpensive.

1. Family Chronicle’s More Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929. Copies are currently available online for about $25.00. However, the number of photo examples for each decade make it worth every penny. There were printings in 2004 and 2011. Mine is 2011, but the covers are the same. I have no idea if there were any editorial changes within the book in the interim.

2. Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900 by Maureen A. Taylor (The Photo Detective). Used copies are available online from about $8.00.

The reason I’ve recommended a couple of books when this post is about online resources is because photo dating strategies doesn’t seem to be an area of strength on the internet.

However, there are a few.

1. Fashion Institute of Technology, NYC – Fashion History Timeline is one of the best websites I’ve found. Fashions are divided into centuries and then subdivided into decades.

2. Victoria and Albert Museum: History of Fashion 1840-1900 – The V&A has a written description of fashions by decade with a few photo examples for each decade.

3. Pinterest – There are many boards with fashion themes. This wouldn’t be my first choice as a reference source, but if you search by decade, there are examples of clothing. The link I’ve added gives examples from the 1840s.

4. Fashion-Era – A website devoted to fashion changes through time

5. My Modern Met – There is an illustrated timeline of women’s fashions from the 1700s onwards

6. Men’s Historical Clothing – There are some, but not extensive, examples of men’s fashions

That’s the short list.

Are you wondering about the photo at the beginning of this post? This lady is my 5X great grandmother, Sarah Brawn Adams. This is a pretty early family photograph, taken somewhere between 1837 and the 1850s. Sarah died after the 1851 Canadian census and before the U.S. 1860 and Canadian 1861 censuses.

Her middle part in her hair, her bonnet and shoulder covering date this photo to the late 1840s or early 1850s.

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