Dating Old Family Photographs: Part 2

Dating Old Family Photographs: Part 2



cdv victorian photograph mount back


This photograph dates to c.1876-80, 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 photographic format in Britain from 1860 through to the 1890s, declining during the early-1900s and finally dying out around the First World War.

(2) Secondly the card is relatively thin and has square corners – both characteristics typical of fairly early cartes de visite (cdvs). Rounded corners began to supersede square corners from the later 1870s but became more common from the 1880s.


cdv victorian photograph mount back


(3) A striking feature of this card mount is its gold/yellow colour. Several pale-bright shades became fashionable from the late-1860s onwards, also including sugar pink and turquoise. Wider photographic evidence drawn from firmly-dated examples demonstrates that this golden-yellow tone was most fashionable during the 1870s and 1880s, virtually obsolete by 1890.

(4) The photographic studio is named as W G Moore of Sackville Street, Dublin. Unfortunately relatively little has been published online or in print about this business, although I have been advised that he took over these premises some time after 1868 (information from ) In addition, a few other examples of Moore’s work appear online in random contexts, dating broadly to the 1880s/1890s. However, firm operational dates remain elusive.

(5) Even when photographer operational data is hard to pin down, the printed mount details can often narrow the date range. The busy appearance of this mount, featuring several different font styles, a ribbon banner and heraldic device together suggest a time frame of 1870s or turn of the 1880s.


cdv victorian woman dress fashion


(6) Turning now to the visual image, we notice the full-length composition of the subject, who poses in a contrived drawing-room interior.Generally this type of pose and setting is characteristic of the 1860s, but in this instance the composition presents a red-herring. Clients could to a degree choose their pose when being photographed and sometimes – presumably if they were particularly pleased with their appearance – they might favour the traditional full-length composition, to set their attire off to best advantage. We can see how much more pleasing the full-length effect would have been, compared to the more fashionable 1870s/1880s three-quarter length pose that cut off the lower legs and feet.

(7) As so often happens, the evidence of dress provides the best idea of when this photograph was taken. The lady is clearly elderly and her figure is diminished, but she had the means to dress well and wears a handsome daytime outfit typical of c.1875-80. Her narrow front-buttoning costume is the elegant ‘Princess dress’ (named after Princess Alexandra), especially popular from 1876, and often accessorised with a moderate-tall hat or bonnet, as seen here. Typically the front of the skirt section of the gown is flat and gathered horizontally, while the back drapery cascades behind, a striking flounced and pleated train sweeping the floor. The skirt train is said to have been discontinued for day wear in 1880, only being retained for evening and bridal wear after that date. Even allowing for an older lady’s possible conservative taste, a date estimate of c.1876-80 seems correct for this photograph.

An Intriguing Victorian Scrapbook

An Intriguing Victorian Scrapbook


victorian scrap book cover leather bound book



I have been fortunate to be sent a very special Victorian scrapbook by a private client: he had inherited it from a relative believed to have bought it at a car boot sale or similar. The substantial volume, measuring 37.5 x 27.5 cms, had no apparent connection to their family and its origins and provenance (ownership history) were unknown.



masonic emblems free masons horse shoe painting scrapbook victorian


The scrapbook looks plain enough from the outside, but inside, arranged on 69 pages of stout card, lies a visual treasure trove – engaging and vibrant images ranging from photographs, through hand-crafted paintings and sketches to complex montages, such as that on page 1, displaying a horseshoe, masonic emblems, a bible and pictures of half-ruined Welsh priories.



masonic emblems free masons horse shoe painting scrapbook victorian


Scrapbooking was very popular in the 19th century, especially amongst ladies and children, who collected and organised all manner of ephemera and mementoes, including letters, decorative greetings cards, trade cards, favourite poems, even locks of friends’ hair. The rise in production of printed photographs from the 1860s onwards meant that portraits of relatives, pictures of family homes and other familiar people and places could also be added to the collection of personal memorabilia inside a scrapbook. In this instance the compiler has re-touched or decorated many such photographs, using watercolour paint, creating attractive and unique images.



illustration of victorian manor house



In fact the only clues as to who may have compiled this fascinating book and whom it could possibly represent rests with the many portraits of people and depictions of country houses displayed inside. A few of these are identified but many remain anonymous, although dating the photographs confirms that they originated during the 1860s and 1870s and were probably arranged in the scrapbook around that time.



victorian group photo women



Research into this intriguing album is beginning to reveal aristocratic connections, stately homes and privileged country life in Huntingdonshire in the mid-Victorian era.

Summer Fashions of the 1920s

Summer Fashions of the 1920s



1920s fashions summer


Nowadays in the warm weather we can dress more or less as we like to keep cool, but even within some people’s living memory, that was far from the case. During the 1920s there remained a wide gulf between male and female modes: traditional dress codes were relaxing and by early-decade women enjoyed loose, comfortable cotton dresses with comfortable necklines and short sleeves – even soft white plimsolls or sneakers for weekends. Yet respectable men were expected wear conventional three-piece suits, including waistcoats, and formal shirts with neckties, whatever the weather. The most casual summer choice for the average 1920s male was a ‘sports jacket’ teamed with a pair of light flannel trousers, as in the early-1920s family snapshots above and below.


1920s fashions summer


Children – boys and girls – benefitted from the gradual shortening of frock and shorts hemlines and white and pale colours were, as ever, favoured for the summer and in hot climates, but men simply did not wear shorts, except for competitive sports like athletics. Women’s frocks still extended to the calves during the early-1920s, but simple styling was welcome in summer and lightweight materials – crisp cottons, linens and soft silks bearing geometric designs following the Art Decoaesthetic, or fashionable stripes. These fresh, easy-to-wear modes made women feel more youthful, as evidenced by this postcard portrait below of a 41-year old lady photographed on 14th July 1924.


1920s post card fashions summer


From 1925/1926 female fashions grew increasingly minimalist: hemlines rose significantly to around knee level, remaining there until the end of the decade. Light jersey-knit suits in classic muted tones, comfortable and broadly termed ‘sportswear’ for leisure occasions, were promoted by pioneering designers such as Jean Patou and Chanel, as seen in the Georges Lepape illustration below for Vogue, 1928.


1920s fashions summer


Also popular as summer wear in the late-1920s were floating dresses of silk chiffon or the new artificial material, ‘art silk’, or rayon, worn with picturesque brimmed hats, undulating or handkerchief hemlines a particular feature of 1929/1930, as seen in this family snapshot taken in Richmond Park.


1920s fashions summer


In Britain for much of the 1920s, beachwear was rather conservative and fashioned from clinging jersey fabric that became waterlogged when wet. Men wore vest sections to their costumes, as they had done since the late-Victorian period, and ladies’ bathing suits were typically modest, featuring short sleeves and short legs, as seen in this family snapshot taken in Devon in 1924.


1920s fashions summer


However, beachwear was evolving and becoming more sporty and colourful with bold contrasting trims. Patterned wraps created a new sense of style on wear on the beach and fitted rubber swimming caps came into vogue, perfect for protecting newly-shorn locks, as seen in this late-1920s French illustration.


1920s fashions summer


By the late-1920s wealthy tourists frequenting the sun-drenched beaches of California and elite resorts along the French Riviera were setting a new trend for sunbathing and acquiring a suntan, now that sun-burnt skin was no longer the shameful sign of outdoor labour, but representative of luxury and leisure. With the fashionable emphasis increasingly on glowing golden limbs, swimwear began to grow briefer, as narrow shoulder straps and low-backed costumes evolved. New forms of beachwear also developed – sleeveless blouses and loose beach pyjamas, as promoted for the first time on the front cover of Vogue’s Summer Travel number in 1929.  


1920s fashions summer

For  more on 1920s fashion, see my best-selling book, Fashion in the 1920s, available online from:




1920s fashions book

Dating Old Family Photographs: Part 1

Dating Old Family Photographs: Part 1



victorian photograph mount back


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).


victorian photograph mount back


(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.

Family Photographs from WW1: Unidentified Royal Artillery Horseman

Family Photographs from WW1:

Unidentified Royal Artillery Horseman



ww1 royal artillery horse




Most of my time is spent dating and helping to identify other people’s family photographs, but here is an image from our own family collection that remains a mystery. Found amongst my father’s effects, clearly this postcard portrait was taken during the First World War, probably by a professional military photographer and most likely in England. The upper corners have been cut down, perhaps to fit the card inside a frame at some stage.




ww1 royal artillery horse




The uniform and insignia of this proud horseman place him with the Royal Artillery, one of the British Army’s largest regiments during the Great War. The single sleeve stripe or chevron shows his rank to be lance bombardier (equivalent to lance corporal), while uniform details that reflect his mounted role include his leather ammunition bandolier, breeches, puttees and spurs. The white lanyard over his left shoulder was a distinguishing mark of the Royal Artillery, later moved to the right shoulder c.1921.

Nothing is printed or written on the back of the photographic mount, so any clues are contained in the visual image alone. Frustratingly, we don’t recognise this horseman: comparison with other photos confirms that he is not my grandfather, William George Shrimpton, who did serve in the war. Perhaps he was a great uncle – one of our grandfather’s or grandmother’s brothers: if so, his surname would be Shrimpton or Brooks. Can anyone help to identify him please?

Dressed to impress: 1860s cdv photograph and green silk gown

Dressed to impress:

1860s cdv photograph and green silk gown



cdv green silk gown 1860s




Dating photographs at the recent Who Do You Think You Are? Live family history show, I was very lucky to see not only a fine mid-1860s carte de visite photograph of a fashionably-dressed young woman, but also a length of the actual fabric used to make her gown. The lady in the photo was Jean Follett’s great great aunt, Mary Calder (nee Jamieson) and the family have carefully preserved the very dress that she wore in the photograph almost 150 years ago. This extra length of material was found only recently, tucked away in an old suitcase. No doubt its safe storage away from the light had helped to preserve its vibrant emerald green colour. The fabric is a stiff silk with a very fine black stripe that isn’t evident in the photograph, but Jean confirmed that the surviving dress is also trimmed with black bows down the front of the skirt and that the pleated edging around the hem also incorporates a narrow band of black braiding – a very stylish and co-ordinated outfit!




ladies fashio plate 1860s




Black and white Victorian photographs can demonstrate the style of garments, but they tell us very little of the colours worn by earlier generations. However we know that bold-coloured silks were very fashionable in the 1860s. This fashion plate from 1863 demonstrates some of the vivid hues then in vogue for ladies’ clothing materials, including an emerald green very close to the colour of our fabric. The taste for vibrant colours was inspired by the recent development of the first chemical (aniline) dyes. Mauvine – a strong purple shade – came into existence in 1856 and in the following years the spectrum of new colours commercially available for dress fabrics ranged from violets and blues to greens and reds.

The ancestor in the photograph may only have been a domestic servant  but she was dressed to impress in her special portrait and was bang up to date with the latest 1860s fashions!

Family Photographs from WW1: A Separation Portrait

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Separation Portrait






A fairly common type of photograph surviving in family collections from the First World War is the ‘separation’ scene combing two different but linked pictures. Soldiers serving overseas would usually take away to war a photograph of their family, to remind them of loved ones at home. Sometimes while abroad, a serviceman would be photographed in a local studio, like the soldier above, a Sergeant-Major with the North Staffordshire Regiment, pictured wearing khaki drill uniform in Alexandria, Egypt, c.1916-18. He might then have a small copy of the existing photograph of his family inserted into the corner of his portrait as a little vignette image – a kind of thought bubble, as seen here. The new photograph, posted back to Britain, would give his wife and children (or, in other instances, his parents and siblings, or sweetheart) an updated image of him and would also demonstrate visibly that they were very much in his thoughts, despite the distance separating them.






In this case, both the soldier’s separation photograph and the earlier family portrait included as a vignette have survived in this private family photograph collection, as seen above. The fashion clues here suggest that the wife and four children were photographed c.1914-15, probably around the time the soldier first joined up. These separation photographs are particularly poignant images from the First World War, expressing something of the human sentiments that lay just beneath the surface of the military action.



Family Photographs from WW1: A Band of Brothers

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Band of Brothers


band of brothers ww1 uniform british fusiliers silver war badge



Many servicemen during the First World War visited their local photographer for a commemorative portrait and often friends or brothers would pose together, wearing their various military uniforms. Above are three brothers who, born between 1891 and 1894, were healthy young men when war broke out in August 1914. The photograph is undated but was evidently taken during the war.

John (Jack) and Charles Mabbs (left and centre) served in the 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, while their younger brother, Frederick Mabbs, joined the 7th Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. Jack was wounded in Mombasa in 1915 and later received the Silver War Badge (aka Silver Wound Badge), while Fred, who served in France and Belgium, was also wounded, judging from the wound stripes seen here on his left sleeve. Fred’s nickname was ‘Duke’ because he had met the Duke of Windsor and had offered him a cigarette (which he took!)


chelsea pensioner


Happily, all three brothers survived the Great War and Charles, who had been involved in guerilla and commando warfare, remained a career soldier, going on to train British Commandos in the Second World War. Charles ended his days as a Chelsea Pensioner and the above photograph was taken in 1968, shortly before his death.

With many thanks to Beryl Venn (nee Mabbs), daughter of Charles Mabbs, 12th August 1891 – 5th July 1969.

Fashion in the 1940s

Fashion in the 1940s



1940s fashion book



Last week my 6th book was published – Fashion in the 1940s      

(Shire Library, October 2014).


The Second World War and its aftermath dominated dress during the 1940s, so the book focuses closely on Home Front fashion throughout the conflict and in the following years, as evidenced in family photographs, official government images, magazine advertisements, dressmaking patterns and surviving articles of dress.



milk man ww2 woman driving



The first chapter, Dressed for War, examines sartorial developments such as the siren suit and gas masks and the uniforms worn by women who joined wartime organisations and considers the ways in which everyday clothing was modified to suit wartime conditions and new work roles.




ration book ww2 1940s fashion



Restricted Fashion focuses on clothes rationing in Britain and what this meant for families from all social backgrounds; also the Utility scheme that from 1942 controlled much of the nation’s garment manufacture and the austerity measures that limited the amount of cloth and decoration that could be used for dresses, skirts, trousers, suits and coats.



make do and mend sewing ww2 1940s



The third chapter, Keeping Up Appearances, deals with the challenges of preserving a decent wardrobe and maintaining a respectable appearance at a time of growing shortages and restrictions. It includes details of the Government’s Make-Do and Mend scheme and demonstrates how women extended the life of their own and their family’s clothes and had to improvise when it came to hair and beauty products and cosmetics.



wedding ww2 canadian bomber command beaver lamb



The fourth chapter covers Bridal Wear during and after the war. It looks at 1940s bridal choices, including both romantic white wedding fashions and the smart civilian styles that were popular when weddings were arranged at short notice and there was no time to acquire a special white dress and veil.



new look fashion 1940s 1947 christian dior



Finally Post-War Style examines the development of fashion after the war. Christian Dior’s controversial ‘New Look’, launched in 1947, revived a sense of feminine glamour and, despite early criticism of its extravagant styling when Britain was still in the grip of rationing and austerity, versions of the new silhouette were widely adopted by the end of the decade.



1940s fashion bathing suit swim



Late-1940s bathing costume courtesy

Another major strand of late-1940s fashion was the development of colourful beachwear and a general trend towards youthful, comfortable separates, inspired by casual American fashions.

This is just a glimpse inside my new book. For the full story and dozens of beautiful contemporary illustrations, see Fashion in the 1940s:


This book is available from: Publisher



Family Photographs from WW1: A Departure Scene

family ww1 soldier

Family Photographs from WW1:

A Departure Scene



family ww1 soldier




Among our family photographs dating from the First World War, perhaps the most common type of image is the poignant portrait of the serviceman departing for war. Not only adventurous youths but also mature men with steady civilian jobs and families to support signed up or were conscripted into the army.

Many new recruits had studio photographs taken in uniform to indicate their new role, membership of a military organisation and to demonstrate that they were serving their country. The soldier in the above scene wears the 1914-pattern leather belt typically worn by Infantry Service battalions, introduced in haste to equip a rapidly-expanding army. His wife and three young children are well-dressed in the ‘Sunday best’ fashions typical of the mid-1910s.

This kind of formal group portrait was essentially also a departure scene – a last photograph taken together as a family. The soldier would take a copy away to war with him as a precious keepsake depicting loved ones at home awaiting his safe return. His family would keep another copy in the house, perhaps propped up on the mantelpiece as a daily reminder of their absent husband and father. Such photographs provided a crucial way of maintaining contact throughout the duration of the war. This soldier has not yet been identified, so it is not known whether he lived to see his wife and children again.