Using trade directories to date photographs

Using Trade Directories

Trade directories are extremely helpful for dating old photographs. They are ONE of the main tools available and will often provide an answer that is accurate enough.

However, like most historical records, it helps to understand a little bit about them, including their strengths and their limitations.

Trade directories were, and still are today (Yellow Pages etc.), designed to allow businesses to advertise their goods and services. They are almost always DATED to reflect the year of publication and can cover a very small area such as a village or a wider area such as a town, city or county.


Good things about trade directories. They

  • are dated
  • include the business name
  • include one or more business addresses.


Limitations of trade directories.

  • not every business advertised in trade directories
  • those that did advertise did not necessarily advertise every year; some advertised only periodically when they felt the need to or when funds were available
  • dating a photograph using trade directory data is less precise when businesses stayed at the same address for a long time
  • compilation  of a directory was usually six to 12 months in advance and business details sometimes altered between compilation and publication
  • compilation errors did, inevitably, occur.


From this, we can deduce that

  • a trade directory entry indicates that a firm WAS IN BUSINESS at a particular address in at least part of  the year that the directory was published (unless details changed between compilation and publication) – the actual dates are not definable – only the year
  • the ABSENCE of a trade directory entry does not mean that a firm was NOT in business at that time (maybe it did not advertise)
  • trade directory data helps most when firms moved about – the longer a firm was at a particular address, the less useful the trade directory information is for dating purposes.


Other ways of dating a photograph

For a general introduction, go to Dating Old Photographs.

If your photograph is a carte de visite or a cabinet card, and the trade directory information alone is not precise enough for you, use our unique dating wizard

OR – if you prefer – go to our Custom Dating page and ask for a personal estimate of the date of your photograph which will be assessed using all of the many sources of information available, including fashion.