What Year Was That Picture Taken?

There it is. A big box of photos full of people frozen in time that you can’t identify. There are no names, locations or specific event noted on the back. How are you supposed to know who is in that picture or where it was taken?

A big step you can take to solve these mysteries is to date the picture. Here are some tips on how to successfully date an image.

What Are They Wearing?

HP0023Are the people in the photo wearing anything specific such as a certain clothing style that could give away the year? Military uniform? Are they missing certain clothing accessories because they haven’t been invented yet?

Clothing styles are always evolving.

You can take hints for the time period of an outfit by accents of an outfit.

  1. Sleeves and shoulders (height, seam styles, puffiness (or lack of))
  2. Dress length and type. Is there a petty coat? How big is the petty coat?
  3. Accessories such as their hat, jewelry, broaches, pins, umbrella, purses
  4. Eyewear and glasses.
  5. Buttons and button types/styles
  6. Shoes! Don’t forget to look at their shoes!

Fun Facts: Sunglasses were invented in 1929 and velcro was invented in 1941.

Military uniforms can provide a lot of information as you identify certain pieces.

military-dateMilitary uniforms are purposeful for multiple reasons. Uniforms change by specific branches of the military and by rank. There are also fatigues and more dressy uniforms for special events. But often, identifying uniforms can be easy and very informative.

  1. What country did they serve?
  2. What branch of the military did they serve?
  3. What position or rank were they?
  4. Was this picture taken during war or peacetime?
  5. Are there special medals or emblems on the uniform to signify rank or special merits?


Vehicles and Other Methods of Transportation?

vintage carsAre there cars, buses, trains or maybe even a plane in the photograph? How many? If you can identify the year and model of the “newest” vehicle in a photo, you know a baseline for the year a picture was taken.

Can you spot a license plate? License plate designs change over time and you might be able to spot an expiration sticker.

Be sure to pay close attention to wheels, radios and other objects that may seem trivial at first glance. Newer technologies, devices and more up to date decor may have been added to older vehicles. You won’t find a factory-installed CD player in a Model T!

Is the Photograph of a Special Event, Holiday or Celebration?

Holidays and family events are popular times for taking lots of photographs. Are the girls wearing spring-like dresses and hats which could be an Easter picnic or event? Christmas tree in the background? Kids wearing birthday hats? Wedding? Along with normal, everyday clothes, wedding dresses have also evolved over time.

Look at the Background!

building - dateAre there buildings or specific landmarks that you may be able to identify? If you can identify the location of where a picture was taken, you may be able to identify a specific building, house or other structure. Knowing when that structure was built (or torn down) along with special attributes (extra garage, second story, siding vs brick, etc.), might help you determine a photograph’s age.

Physical Characteristics of the Actual Photo

Are you looking at a real photograph? Is it the original photograph or a reprint? The quality and type of paper used for the photo could help you as well if it’s available.

Photography originated in the late 1830s. The first photographs were originally printed on metal plates. As technology advanced, photographs were printed to tintypes from about 1855 to the 1930s. As photographs moved to paper, the quality of paper also evolved. Think about the thickness, gloss vs matte, color variations (black & white, sepia, color) and discolorations over time. These physical characteristics of an original photo could help you.

Still Stuck?

Join a genealogy group on Facebook! There are many genealogy groups on Facebook that allow members to post pictures with the intent to date photos. Getting a fresh set of eyes and finding a person who may have a specific expertise in the contents of your photos. They may also have seen similar photos themselves.