Family history and collecting old photographs are two very popular pastimes these days and old photographs can pose many questions such as ‘Who is it?’ or ‘When was it taken?’.
We all have old family photos. These may be loose or in albums or they may be in the form of postcards or even fragile black and grey glass negatives. If you are really lucky, you may have some early ones in ‘leather’ cases or in ornate shiny cases made of a black or brown plastic like material.
So what about dating? Photography started in 1839 but at that time was really in the hands of a few scientists, professionals or wealthy amateurs. Not many family photographs exist from that era unless they are beautiful images on a polished silver plate (that looks like a mirror). These are daguerreotypes as invented by Daguerre in France.
Around 1850, photos were produced which were actually weak negatives on glass but, when backed with a dark material or black paint, appeared as normal positive images: these were ambrotypes.
Both ambrotypes and daguerreotypes can be found in maroon ‘leather’ cases or highly ornate Union Cases made from a shiny and brittle thermoplastic material.
Up to this stage, photos were generally one-offs, there was no negative and multiple copies were impracticable. Any copies required had to be photographed from the original – often with a distinct loss of quality.
By the late 1850s the carte de visite appeared, a small photograph pasted onto a standard sized mount measuring approximately 4.25″ x 2.5″ (108mm x 63mm). This was a much cheaper process and allowed copies to be taken from a negative. Suddenly photography was available to the masses as well as the gentry and family albums became a must for most Victorian families.
From 1866, the carte de visite was joined by the larger format cabinet card photo which was pasted onto a standard mount measuring approximately 6.5 “x 4.25″ (155mm x 110mm).
Also around the mid 1850s another cheap process was introduced. The tintype (also known as the ferrotype in the USA) was produced on a thin metal plate and was usually of a rather muddy appearance. Tintypes were cheap and were still used by UK street and beach photographers in the 1940s and 1950s – long after the Second World War.
From about 1865, the opalotype on white opal glass was introduced. These were usually big enough to be framed for wall display. Opalotypes can be wonderfully beautiful works of art.
Occasionally , daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards and opalotypes were hand coloured.
Carte de visite and cabinet portraits were also enlarged, over-painted in oils or crayon and framed. They can sometimes be mistaken for oil paintings.
By the very late 1890s and especially by the 1900s, the topographical postcard was becoming very popular. From about 1904, many photographers responded by producing studio portraits in the postcard format – even having the words Postcard on the back so that they could be sent through the mail to family and friends.
There we have it, a brief overview of the early years of photography covering the photographs that you are most likely to see. There are others such as the early calotype and the revolutionary 1904 colour images called Autochromes but these are rather unusual.
Whatever you have in your family collection, the key thing is to look after those precious images in your care – for now and for future generations.
To look at more precise ways of dating your family portraits, return to the Dating page.