November 26th, 2011

Photographs and Your Family Research

Everybody has someone in the family who has a stash of old pictures somewhere; many are even labelled and identified. Most however have no information attached to them, and so a bit of detective work is necessary to reveal their subjects or locations. In spite of a lack of immediate information, old photographs can be of immense value in identifying people, and placing them in specific locations at particular times. The secret to using photographs in family research is to understand how they evolved over time. Beginning in 1826, the printing and mounting of photographs developed over the years, but each time period had its particular style and methods – information of vital importance to genealogists. Clothing styles, and the surroundings and backgrounds can also reveal clues as to where and when a picture was taken, and with surprising accuracy. Let’s take a look at the different periods during which photography evolved, and the characteristics of those eras which we can use to identify them.

The Different “Types” of Photograph

The earliest photographs were all known as some sort of “type” – the very first officially announced in 1939 was a Daguerreotype –named after one of the founding Fathers of Photography who invented the process, Louis Daguerre. These initial photographs were quite expensive as the image was captured on silver plated copper, and attached to a sheet of glass employing a decorative frame made using a golden sheet of foil. Sometimes they would be cushioned or padded with silk, satin, or velvet, consequently the high cost.

The first paper photographs appeared in or around 1945, and they were known as Calotypes. Silver nitrate was used to wash a piece of high quality writing paper, and then exposed to a bit of heat in a darkened room until it was nearly dry. The paper was then immersed in potassium iodide while still moist, then rinsed off and dried out completely. This process basically prepared the surface of the paper to receive the image, although a second treatment of immersion in silver nitrate and garlic acid was employed immediately before placing the paper in the camera. Calotypes were used till around 1855, the unfortunate part of this process being that many of the photos faded over the years due to the unstable nature of the silver nitrate/garlic acid solution. If you see an old photograph where the subjects look like ghosts, it was probably printed using this method.

Ambrotypes were introduced in 1854, and many of the Civil War photos were taken using this process. These were mounted in glass similar to the daguerreotypes, the captured image being displayed against a black background.

Next came the Tintype, introduced around the same time as the ambrotypes and originally known as a Melainotype. These were popular in both the United States and Great Britain, the latter of which had become fascinated with photography ever since the Great Exhibition in 1851. Tintypes were inexpensive to produce, and consequently the general public now had access to photographs. Just about everyone could afford them, and families began taking advantage of this wonderful phenomenon. Street photographers touting “penny photographs” sprung up in cities around the world, and tintypes were also used extensively during the Civil War period.

It is possible to narrow down the dating of these photographs if we use a number of criteria relevant to the time periods below.

1856 – 1860 – During this period a much thicker iron stock was used in the plating process than at any other time. A very distinguished identifying patent mark may be found on them as well –Neff’s Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56. Leather sleeves were often used to house these delicate treasures.

1861 – 1865 – Tintypes used during the Civil War period may be identified by the paper sleeves they are displayed in. The paper frames may be decorated with painted or drawn patriotic symbols, or if of a later era, have the designs embossed directly into the paper frame itself. Stamps sold between 1864 and 1866 were required to have a revenue stamp attached in the rear, as Congress initiated a tax to raise funds for the Union Army during this period. If you find a photo with one of these revenue stamps, you cannot only identify the date of the photograph, but you could be holding a small fortune, as they are prized by collectors.

1870 – 1885 – During these years, an iron plate with a chocolate coloured surface was produced by the Phoenix Plate Company. The new invention was a hit with photographers, and so many took to using the new style of plate that the age became known as the Brown Period. During this era photographers also began to employ painted backgrounds in their photos, especially using rural images. This is a huge clue that a photo was shot during this time period.

1866 – 1906 – The Cabinet Card was introduced in the early part of this era, and involved sticking the photograph to a piece of cardboard. Initially the cardboard was plain, but over the years decorations were added, coloured inks introduced, and even gold and silver used to edge the cards. The distinctive traits introduced over the years can help to identify the era that the cabinet card style photo you may have was taken.

These early forms of photograph were the precursors of modern film. There is much debate among photographers and photography experts about who invented film, but it began to be used around 1888. This was the year that Kodak Eastman was born, and the historical Kodak Camera was introduced to the world. As you can see, identifying a particular type of photo can help you to pinpoint the time and location of the subjects in it. There are a number of excellent books available on dating photographs, and even lots of online information. Do a Google search for terms like “old+photographs+analysis”, or “Victorian Fashion” and such. There is an abundance of information that can help you to track those elusive ancestors through photograph analysis.