Sunday, August 09, 2015

Dating Your Family Photos

Being able to easily identify the approximate date of an old photograph is a skill I take for granted, since I do it all the time. Yesterday, after a friend posted something on Facebook, I realized that it is not a common skill. I looked for a good guide to identifying photograph dates for my friend, but I couldn't find one I liked. So, with that said, here is a guide to figuring out when a photograph was taken (using all Waterbury and Waterbury-connected photos, of course!).

1. No photographs before the 1840s.

The photographic process was invented in France by Louis Daguerre in 1839. That first type of photograph is called a daguerreotype, after its inventor. Only one image was made, developed directly on a glass plate, which was then placed in a protective case.

Daguerreotypes had a long exposure time, meaning that people had to hold still for several minutes to avoid looking blurry. Daguerreotypes of street scenes don't show any people or animals, unless they happened to be standing still during the exposure time. People walking by were effectively invisible.

Waterbury's Scovill Manufacturing Company was the first in the U.S. to make daguerreotype plates, starting in 1842.

Daguerreotype of St. John's Church on the Green, Waterbury, circa 1847
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

Scovill produced cameras and other photographic equipment as Anthony & Scovill (later ANSCO) in the 1840s. Scovill was the first to make molded “plastic” (a mixture of wood fibers and gum shellac) die-stamped cases for daguerreotypes in 1854. (Other companies, not in Waterbury, also got into the photography business, making plates and cases.)

Daguerreotype cases look like miniature books, with brass frames, hinges and clasps. The cases were also used for other types of photographs, such as ambrotypes and tintypes. They continued to be used into the 1880s.

Unused Scovill Union Case, circa 1880
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

Civil War Tintype in a Scovill Union Case
(From Civil War Antique Shop)

Civil War Tintype in a Scovill Union Case
(From Civil War Antique Shop)

2. Studio Portraits vs. Group Photos

During the first two or three decades of photography, getting your photo taken was a big deal. You had to pay a professional photographer to take the photo. Cameras were new technology, so they were expensive--just as the newest type of TV is crazy expensive when it's first released, and then becomes more and more affordable over time.

You can get an approximate date for a photograph if the photographer's name is on the front or back. A Google search can usually turn up information about the photographer (search for all of the information written on the photo: name, address, and the word photography).

If you have a subscription to, you can search for the photographer in the City Directories. If you have a library card from any Connecticut public library, you can access the City Directories through (via HeritageQuest) at no cost.

Studio portraits were popular from the 1850s until the 1930s (and beyond--despite the current selfie fad, professional photographers still make a living taking formal portraits in their studios).

Tintype by Waterbury photographer William King, who had a studio on Bank Street from about 1855 until about 1876. A tintype is, as the name suggests, a photo printed on a piece of tin. The rosy color in the cheeks is painted by hand.

George Eastman introduced photographic film cameras in 1885. Photography for the masses had begun. Eastman's Kodak camera, affordable and easy to use, followed in 1888. 

During the 1890s, photography became a popular hobby for the middle class, from teenage girls to adult men. The Waterbury Photographic Society was started in 1888 and exhibited the work of its amateur photographers every two weeks in Downtown Waterbury.

You are unlikely to see a large group photograph from before the 1880s unless it was a particularly important event, like the Gettysburg Address, or if a business owner wanted to capture an image of his business, himself, and his employees. In other words, if it's a group photo and it's not in a studio, it's probably from after 1880.

Cyanotype of Waterbury's Second Congregational Church on West Main Street, 1890s.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

The cyanotype process was discovered in England in 1842. With the introduction of inexpensive printing paper, it became a popular and inexpensive photographic process during the 1890s. I've seen numerous examples of it being used by high school and college students from the 1890s until just before World War I.

3. Fashion Dictates Date

As we know from our own lives, clothing and hair styles are constantly changing. It's pretty easy to tell from how people are dressed whether a photo was taken in the 1950s or the 1980s. The same is true for the 1850s and the 1880s. Since the average person isn't familiar with the fashions of the 1800s, here is a selection of Waterbury photographs showing fashions, arranged by approximate date.

Frederick J. Kingsbury (standing, center of image), a major figure in Waterbury history, with Frederick Law Olmsted (seated, right) and their friends at Yale during the 1840s. Fashionable young men in their suits and ties. Note the varying tie sizes, and the varying hair lengths.
(Published in Frederick Law Olmsted, Landscape Architect, 1822-1903)

Daguerreotype of Silas Hoadley Clockworkers, Greystone Falls, 1840s.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

More men's fashions of the 1840s. The business owner is in a top hat and fancy suit. The workers are wearing caps and less expensive suits.

Greystone Falls is located on Hancock Brook, upstream from Waterville, in Plymouth.

Unidentified woman, 1840s or 1850s. Scovill Daguerreotype Plate.
(From Dean Joseph Fine Art and Antiques on eBay)

The woman is dressed very conservatively. She is wearing her finest clothing, and she is showing that she is modest and respectable, not frivolously keeping up with the latest fashions.  Note that she did not necessarily live in Waterbury--the seller on eBay lists the plate as having been made by Scovill; the photograph could have been taken anywhere.

Unidentified Man, 1840s or 1850s. Scovill Daguerreotype Plate.
(From Dean Joseph Fine Art and Antiques on eBay)

This is presumably from the same family as the preceding image. Note that he did not necessarily live in Waterbury--the seller on eBay lists the plate as having been made by Scovill; the photograph could have been taken anywhere.

Unidentified women, 1850s
(From Skiagraphia on Flickr)

The women could be from anywhere, not necessarily Waterbury. The daguerreotype case bears the mark "Scovill Mfg. Co. Superior, Waterbury, Conn. No. 831."

Unidentified woman photographed in Waterbury during the Civil War.
(From Pinterest)

During the 1860s, women's skirts were huge. They wore hoop skirts under the main skirt to get the large, round size.

Edward Scott, photographed by William S. Kelly, 1860s.
(From The Jumping Frog Used Books in Hartford)

Men's best clothing during the 1860s tend to resemble what we would call tuxedos. Fancy dress was very fancy.

Edward Scott was a Waterbury farmer and one of the founders of Old Pine Grove Cemetery.
William S. Kelly was working as a photographer in Waterbury during the early 1860s.

Family portrait by William Delius, 1870s.
(From eBay)

The woman's dress is a sort of transitional style: a suggestion of the big skirts of the 1860s, but far more ruffles than you'd likely see then.

William Delius was a German/Prussian immigrant who started working as a photographer in Waterbury sometime before 1863 until 1889. The family in the photograph appear to be working class, based on their clothing and the worn faces of the parents.

Isabella Reed of Waterbury, 1880s.
(From The Jumping Frog Used Books in Hartford)

A very fashionable dress of the 1880s, the fabric fitting snugly around the corset, giving Mrs. Reed an hourglass figure. The folds of fabric near the waist suggest there may be a bustle around the back. Her hair is parted in the middle and pulled back in a complex bun or possibly a net.

Isabella (Scott) Reed and her husband, Charles, lived at 79 Abbott Avenue. Isabella was originally from Goshen; Charles was from Cornwall. Charles worked at Scovill's brass factory. Isabella was born in 1851, which helps date the photograph.

Crowd gathered at Exchange Place, 1887.
(Collection of Chase Collegiate Archives)

The crowds are watching the Barnum Circus parade heading down South Main Street from the Green. Note that the men are wearing two basic styles of hat. Women's outfits can be glimpsed closer to the storefronts.

Students at St. Margaret's School, 1887.
(Collection of Chase Collegiate Archives)

This is a nice assortment of dress and hair styles for the late 1880s.

Cabinet Card photograph by Waterbury photographer Charles B. Goldsmith, 1896 or '97.
(From The Jumping Frog Used Bookstore in Hartford) 

Classic 1890s fashion: big poofy sleeves, skinny little waist, hair in a topknot with delicate curls framing the face.

Goldsmith had a studio at 145 East Main Street in 1896 and 1897. He continued to work as a photographer in Waterbury after 1897, but at different locations.

Unidentified young woman, late 1890s.
(From The Jumping Frog Used Books in Hartford)

The girl's hairstyle, combed back tightly with a poof of bangs in the front, was popular during the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Brothers John and Patrick Farrell were in business together as photographers at 317 Bank Street in Waterbury from about 1891 until about 1906. They were previously in business at 197 Bank Street for a couple of years.

Edith Wayne Goss, wife of Chauncey Porter Goss, Jr., circa 1900.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

Pince-nez glasses, although introduced decades earlier, became fashionable at the turn of the century. Edith Goss is wearing a spectacularly flamboyant cloak in this photograph. The rich textures of the image are typical of early 20th century studio portraits.

Burrall Family photo, Church Street, circa 1908.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

The women are wearing what appear to be lightweight cotton shirts (shirtwaists) and long A-line linen skirts. The fashion-plate of the era was the Gibson Girl. Shirtwaists allowed for more mobility than earlier, tightly corseted fashions.

Children playing at Middlecross, the Chase family estate on Grove Street, circa 1914.
(Collection of Mattatuck Museum)

If you see little girls wearing giant bows in their hair, it's probably the 1910s. The short haircuts are also typical of children's fashions during this time period.

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