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Family history research begins with family photos

Identifying Mystery Photos

Most families have boxes of old photographs. Many are unlabeled. Pictures of people you don't know. A fascinating window into your ancestor's lives. Organizing and identifying when and where they were taken is one way to research your family history.

A first step in identifying who is pictured in family photographs is to date them. Grant Romer, director of conservation and museum studies at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, says the challenge of dating photographs can often stump the experts. With some background and practice, however, even amateurs can narrow assumptions enough to identify people or places.

One suggestion Romer makes is to think of the history of photography in 20- year increments. "Most people have no photos made before 1839, when a viable photographic process for commercial use was announced," Romer says. "You can start at 1840 and attempt to date photographs to within a decade or so based on process or information in the photo itself, such as style of dress." Romer's model follows.

1840-1860. This is the period of miniature cased photography, called "hard photography." Most photos are on glass or metal support including daguerreotypes, tintypes and ambrotypes. Paper photography began to appear in the 1850s.

1860-1880. The most common photographic process was the use of wet collodion glass negatives and albumen print positives.

1880-1900. This period is distinguished by introduction of gelatin dry plates and papers that use gelatin or collodion emulsions. Analysis of prints can positively identify whether a photograph is an albumen, gelatin or collodion print. But amateurs can also date photos by looking at people's dress and hair styles. "It would be difficult to mistake someone from the 1890s with someone from the 1870s." Romper notes.

1900-1920. Use fashion styles to date photos from this period. It's a I soft'period in dating by photographic process. These are generally recognizable as 20th century photos. Romer notes this is a period when amateur photography became prevalent and the 116-size postcard format came into use.

After the 1920s, it's often possible to find living relatives who can help date photographs.

"The period of 1920 through 1940 has a discernible look," Romer points out. After the 1940s, color photography helps with dating photos. "During the following two decades, chromogenic color prints appeared and color photography became the dominant form in 1960 to 1980."

Leatrice Kemp, curator of prints for the Rochester Museum and Science Center, helps people date photos in genealogy classes. With eased photos, for example, the style of mat evolved over time. Not always a definitive way to date photos since not everyone switched cutting edge fashion at the same time, still, mat styles are a clue. "Earlier mats were plain," Kemp notes. "Later they became more elaborate. In the mid- 1850s to early 1860s, mats were often stamped with elaborate patterns."

The props used in professional portraits changed with people's tastes. "In the 1890s photographers used painted backdrops, often of outdoor scenes," Kemp says. "Before that, they used props. In the 1870s props were usually a back-to-nature theme: bridges and rocks. In earlier photos, classical scenes were created with props such as Grecian columns."

With paper prints, another clue is the size of the cardboard on which the print is mounted. "There were several important types of mounted prints," Kemp says. "At 2½ x 4 inches, The carte-devisite is the smallest, popular during the Civil War because it could be mailed. Cabinet cards introduced in the 1866 (6 ½ x 4 1/4 inches) are another common format.

Other mount formats include: Promenade (3 3/4 x 7 ½ inches) introduced ca. 1871; Boudoir (5 x 8 1/4 inches) introduced ca. 1890; Imperial (7 x 10 inches) introduced ca. 1890; Panel (8 x 13 inches) introduced ca. 1900.

And finally, you can pick up tricks of the trade with experience plus a little knowledge of history. An example is the tax stamp. "If you have a print from around Civil War times, look for a tax stamp on the back," Kemp says. "Photographs were taxed at the end of the Civil War (1864) until 1866. So a tax stamp can help you date a photo to within two years."

Kemp also recommends researching the photographer. "If you find the. photographer's name and address on the photo, write to the city and ask what dates the photographer worked under that name at that location. This often narrows things down because photographers came and went, especially in the 19th century. They formed and dissolved partnerships, moved studios, opened under new names. You might be able to date your photograph to within a year by learning about the photographer."

Other clues to dating photographs include things like the style of streetlights, license plates, even the configuration of trolley lines in the background of a family snapshot.

Kemp also recommends researching costumes. Dressedfor the Photographer, by Joan Severa, is a terrific resource for dating photographs. Dating photos can be challenging, but is essential to identifying who or what is pictured.

Once you've successfully identified your pictures, the next step is organizing them so your family can fully enjoy and also use them as a reference for the family's history.

Resources: Kodak information Center, 800-2422424; Kodak home page,

Reprinted with permission from Reunions magazine, Winter 1999 issue, Volume 9 Number 2.

Original source assistance from Kodak.

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