Musings of a Museum Fanatic: 6 Tricks to Help You Determine the Date of a Photograph

8.13.2020

6 Tricks to Help You Determine the Date of a Photograph

I've been working on scanning lots and lots of family photos the past few years. I've gotten so many scanned that I have a huge amount of photos I need to organize and identify. So since the beginning of 2020 I've made that a priority. The identifying of photographs is probably the toughest part. Especially when you don't have many people in your family to ask. 

Even if you don't have many people who might know the people or event in the photograph there are plenty of ways to help you narrow things down if not identify what's happening in the photograph. Here are 6 tricks that I use in my personal and professional identifying of photographs. 

What do you have the toughest time with when it comes to identifying photos?



Check for handwritten notes
This might seem obvious but sometimes you just don't think about it. A lot of times with much older photographs they would write notes on the back since it's made of material that's easier to write on. When photos started being printed on glossy photo paper I think we stopped writing on them as much because it was harder. Also if the photograph is in an envelope or container there might be some sort of note. It might be obvious but be sure to check the obvious just in case. 

Check for a date
Many newer photographs will be printed with a date stamp on them. I've found that even when I get photos printed from online places like Shutterfly and Snapfish they print dates on the photographs. If you're working with slides there should be a date printed on them as well. There have only been a few times where I've seen no dates on slides. You might get lucky and have a date in the handwritten note on the back too. 

Black and white v. color
This is another easy way to narrow down the time period of a photograph. You do need to be careful because during the 1950s is when color photographs start to become more affordable therefor more commonly used. 

Look at what are people wearing
After checking for the obvious what people are wearing is the next thing I look at in a photograph. This is really what tends to narrow it down considerably. Say you've got two black and white photos like the one below. You know since they're black and white that they're probably before the 1950s but you need to narrow it down. 

Looking at the photo on the left. Look at what the little girls are wearing. They have dresses with drop hems, tights and patent shoes. The little girl sitting on the mothers lap has boots that are common during the 1910s and 20s. Compare that to how the people in the photo on the right are dressed. The ladies are in outfits that are common during the 1940s. I know most of us have probably seen a movie or two with a World War 2 setting and you can see many outfits that look like what they're wearing. 


People's hairstyles and overall look
You can't really examine someone's outfit without noticing their hair and look as well. They usually go hand in hand when it comes to trends. Looking at the same photos you can see that people's overall look will confirm the time period. Like the ladies on the right. Their hair style helps confirm the 1940s time period. 

What else is in the photo
We become so concerned with the main focus of the photograph that we sometimes don't realize that there are clues in the background! Check out the photograph below. Now I know who is in the photos because there were notes on the envelope but I can see that's my uncle and my cousins when they were younger. 

Say I didn't know that or wanted to be able to tell how old they were. What would I be able to see that could help me identify that? Check out the TV in the background. I bet we could hazard a pretty good guess or you could even try to figure out the exact model with some good sleuthing. There are some other things in the background including another photograph. That's actually a photo of my Dad on the TV! Maybe I know the date of that photograph or I could tell by his very obvious 1970s hair style!

 
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