Dating Old Family Photographs: Part 1
The above photograph dates to c.1860-62, but how can we tell? Like most old family photos that have been passed down the generations, it is not dated or identified.
(1) Firstly, it is a carte de visite print measuring about 10 x 6.5cms – a popular format in Britain from 1860 through to the 1890s, finally dying out around the First World War.
(2) Secondly the card is relatively thin and has square corners – both characteristics typical of early cartes de visite (cdvs).
(3) Thirdly the name and address of the photographer, Hennah & Kent of Brighton, is printed on the reverse of the card mount, offering the potential to investigate studio operational dates. However the reputable website for early Brighton photographers states that this business operated from 108 King’s Road, Brighton for over 30 years, from 1854 to 1884 – useful to a degree, but far too broad a timespan to provide the close circa date that we need:
(4) Far more helpful in this instance is the style of printing, for a small design centred neatly on the back of the mount, as seen here, usually indicates the 1860s.
Many photographic historians can date the card mount with some accuracy but it is only the visual image that will determine a close, reliable circa date. Pictorial clues, ranging from studio settings to dress details, require an understanding of aesthetics, changing visual styles and the dynamics of fashion.
(5) When studying this photographic portrait, we notice at once the doll-like, full-length view of the subject that was most typical of cdvs created in the 1860s. This composition provides a clear view of the contrived drawing-room interior and again this example represents the 1860s, key features the architectural plinth, patterned floor and draped curtain to one side.
(6) Most important of all, but often the most difficult aspect to judge without detailed fashion history knowledge and experience, is the style of dress worn by the photograph’s subject(s). Fashion evidence does not lie and can often pinpoint a closer date than the time frames offered by any other studio-related or card mount evidence.
Here we see a well-dressed lady in a formal silk gown, the bodice close fitting and the vast skirt supported by a crinoline frame, this wide, circular crinoline style typical of the early-mid 1860s. The wide, open gown sleeves flaring out at the wrists represent the ‘pagoda’ style of sleeve, fashionable during the 1850s and at the beginning of the 1860s, up until c.1862. Finally, her hair is drawn down over her ears in the manner of the late-1850s/early 1860s.
To conclude our historical evidence and what it signifies:-
Carte de visite format: should date this photograph to at least 1860
Card mount printed design usually 1860s (especially early-mid 1860s)
Photographers operating at relevant address: 1854-84
Full-length composition in contrived drawing room setting with curtain etc. suggests 1860s
Bearing in mind the cdv format that suggests a post quem date of 1860, we can use the fashion details, especially crinoline skirt, sleeves and hairstyle, to determine an accurate and precise date range of c.1860-62 for this ‘mystery’ family photograph.