Unlocking the Past: A Guide How to Date Old Family Photos

Unlocking the Past A Guide How to Date Old Family Photos (Featured Photo)


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We can rely on old family photos as a treasure trove of memories and information about our ancestors. They provide us with a glimpse into the past and allow us to gain a better understanding of our family history. But dating old family pictures can be a challenge despite the fact that without any identifying information or context, it may be difficult to tell when a photo was taken or who is in it. However, there are a number of techniques and methods that can be used to date old family photos.

Throughout this guide, we will go over the basics of old photo dating, including clothing styles, hairstyles, and photographic technologies. As well as providing tips and tricks for successful old photo dating, we will also discuss how to ask family members for information, utilize online resources, and consider the context of the photos when looking for old photographs. As a result of this guide, you will be able to unlock the past and learn the stories behind your old family photos in no time at all.

How to Date Old Family Photos Header Image
Unlocking the Past: A Guide How to Date Old Family Photos 9

The Basics of Old Photo Dating

Importance of how to date old photos

By understanding the basic principles of dating old photos, you will be able to identify what to look for when you examine the collection of images you have in your family. Styles of clothing, hairstyles, and the technology used to take a picture can all contribute to providing clues as to when the photo was taken.

Here are some examples of each principle

Clothing Styles: You can determine the approximate date of a photo by observing the fashion trends at the time of the photograph. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, high-waisted skirts and leg-of-mutton sleeves were popular, while in the 1920s and 1930s, shorter skirts and bobbed hairstyles became the styles of the day.

Hairstyles: Similar to clothing, hairstyles can also indicate when a photo was taken. In the 1910s, for example, women’s hair was often worn in updos with loose curls, while in the 1940s, because of the war effort, shorter, more practical hairstyles became popular, so many women wore their hair in short updos. 

Photographic Technology: The type of photographic technology used can also give you clues about when a photo was taken. There are several types of early photographs, including daguerreotypes, which have distinct, mirror-like surfaces. As time went on, folks began to use tintypes, ambrotypes, and cabinet cards, each with its own unique characteristics. 

As long as you understand these basic principles, you will be able to analyze your old family photos more effectively and begin to piece together the history of your ancestors by analyzing your old family photos more accurately. 

Analyzing Clothing and Hairstyles

The easiest way to date an old photo is by analyzing the clothes and hairstyles of the people who appear in it to determine when it was taken. Different styles of clothing and hairstyles were popular at other times, so by comparing the photo to known styles, you can usually get a reasonably good idea of when the photo was taken. For example, bell-bottom jeans and long hair were popular in the 1970s, while pleated pants and short hair were more common in the 1960s. 

Women’s Clothing and Accessories

When it comes to dating old family photos, the clothing and accessories of women can give you a great deal of information. You should pay attention to details such as the length of skirts, the style of sleeves, the shape of collars, and the type of fabric that is used when determining the style. An excellent example of this is the gradual transformation of women’s clothing during the 1920s when hemlines were short, and dresses were looser-fitting. You may also be able to find valuable clues when dating photos by looking at the accessories such as hats, gloves, and purses.

1920s clothing
1920s Clothing Style. Photo Credits: Fashion History Timeline

Men’s Clothing and Accessories

There are also valuable clues that can be learned about old family photos by examining the clothing and accessories of men. Pay attention to details such as the style of the suit, the style of the tie, and the style of the hat worn by the men. An excellent example of this is that during the 1950s, men often wore suits with narrow lapels and skinny ties. As a matter of fact, hats were also one of the most common accessories for men during this period as well.

hats 2
1950s men enjoyed hats. Photo Credits: Gentleman’s Gazette

Hairstyles and Grooming

There is no doubt that hairstyles and grooming can provide valuable clues when dating old family photos. The length and style of the hair, the presence or absence of facial hair, and the style of the glasses worn are all details that should be taken into consideration. As an example, during the 1960s, young men tended to wear long hair and grow beards or mustaches, whereas women tended to wear more varied and experimental hairstyles. You can more accurately date old family photos by analyzing the hairstyles and grooming in the pictures as well as gain a better understanding of the fashion of the day by exploring the hairstyles and grooming in the photos.

1910 hairstyle
1910s Hairstyles. Photo credits: witness2fashion

Identifying Photographic Technology

There is another essential factor to keep in mind when dating old photographs, and that is the type of photo-taking technology that was used at the time. 


Daguerreotypes were one of the earliest forms of photography and were popular from the late 1830s to the early 1860s. These photos were made on a polished silver or silver-coated copper plate and produced a mirror-like image. Daguerrotypes are typically housed in a small, hinged case and have a distinctive look and feel. 

Louis Daguerre 2 1
Daguerreotype of Louis Daguerre in 1844 by Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot. In Wikipedia.


From the middle of the 1850s to the first decade of the 1900s, tintypes were a popular type of photograph, also known as ferrotypes. This type of photo was made on a thin iron sheet and was inexpensive and durable at the same time. Among the features of Tintypes is their metallic sheen and lack of a negative, which makes them ideal for portrait photography as well as capturing outdoor landscapes.

Tintype portrait with Cliff House and Seal Rocks background
Tintype. In Wikipedia.


In the mid-1850s and early 1860s, ambrotypes were very popular and were made on a tiny glass plate, and they were tough to make. These photos were created using the wet-plate collodion process and were characterized by their clarity and depth of detail. The ambrotypes were usually contained in a small case with a light source that could be used to view them by holding them up to the light source.

Charlotte Cushman ambrotype
Ambrotype. In Wikipedia.

Cabinet cards

During the late 1800s and the early 1900s, cabinet cards were a prevalent form of photographic technology. In the olden days, these photos were often made on thick card stock and were used for portraits. This type of card was traditionally made of wood and measures approximately 4.25 x 6.5 inches and is characterized by its ornate borders and decorative designs. It is possible to accurately date old family photos by understanding the different types of photographic technology and their characteristics as well as their characteristics.

Walther edwin anna
Cabinet card. In Wikipedia

Historical Fact:
Dr. John William Draper is long credited as the first person to take an image of the human face, sitting with his plant experiment, pen in hand, at NYU in the fall of 1839.

— History of photography. In Wikipedia.

Tips and Tricks for Successful Old Photo Dating

While it can be tricky to date old photos, there are some tips and tricks you can use that can assist you in figuring it out. 

Ask Family Members for Information

You can find out a lot about an old family photo by asking a member of the family if they know anything about it. Talk to your older relatives and ask them if they know who the people in the photos are, as well as any additional details they may be able to provide. You may be able to learn a greater understanding of the pictures if you seek out the help of family members who can provide accurate context and information. 

Use Online Resources

Many online resources are available that can assist you with the process of dating old family photos. In addition to these resources, there are websites and databases that provide information on clothing styles, photographic technology, and historical events. For a quick look at some of the best online sources for old photo dating, you may want to start at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, or even the Library of Congress website.

Compare Photos

When it comes to dating old family photos, one of the most effective tricks is to compare them to other images that were taken during the same period. Take a look at the clothing styles, hairstyles, and photographic technology to see if there are any similarities. By comparing photos, you can identify specific trends or fashion styles that can help you better date old photos.

Consider the Context

An essential aspect to keep in mind when dating old family photos is the context in which they were taken. There may be clues in the background of the picture, such as buildings, landmarks, or other features that may be helpful in identifying the location. Take into consideration the period of time and historical events that may have influenced the clothing style or photography technique used during the period. You can better understand the historical significance of old photos by looking at their context, which can help you date old photos more accurately by understanding their historical context.


With the tips and tricks you will find in this guide, you should be well on your way to successfully dating old family photos once you follow the instructions. Don’t forget to be patient and thorough when you are doing your research, and don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. Have a great time dating with photos!


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