Vintage photographs are fascinating: They reflect our past, the changing
styles, news, family life, and so much more. Dating a vintage photograph
requires an understanding of the period. One typical way is to compare a
photograph to known ones of a period. A well-known collector like the
Family Chronicler would usually have a range of dated photographs, which
can be checked out to establish a date of the photograph.
In the past, photographs were taken on formal occasions, so people would
wear the latest outfits and their best clothes before a photograph was
taken. These could have been taken in a studio or at home, but they
would always be significant events. Hairdos, neckties, clothes and
frills, and background curtains are good indicators of the time period.
Photographic processes can also help in dating a photo. A Daguerre-type
photo would be from around the mid 1800s. The case would be very
decorative while the photo image itself would be on a silver-clad copper
sheet attached to a sheet of glass by a foil-like brass decorative
frame. Sometimes the silver image could be dulled with silver sulfide,
similar to the way silverware tarnishes. An ordinary photograph would
cost about $5.00.
A little later in time came the Calotype prints, which were the first
photographs on paper. Found in museums, they are usually yellowed. Next
in line were the Ambrotype ones, which were on thin negative images on
glass. These were made to look like positives by placing them against a
black background with a protective case, a brass die-cut frame, a
backing of black paper and gilt borders. The skin would be colored with
cheeks and lips tinted pink.
Another interesting set of photographs is the stereograph. Taken between
1849 and 1925, they were matching side-by-side sets of images of a
single scene. These were supposed to be seen one after the other through
an optical gadget held to the eye like a pair of binoculars. Each eye
looked at a slightly different image and the blend of the two images in
the mind gave an impression of depth.
The wet-plate print made its appearance between 1853 and 1902 and saw
cameras coming out of the studios into actual settings. This made
photographing the far west possible. As the prints were large, they
could photograph huge areas. It had an uneven coating with torn or
rippled emulsion and sometimes even fingerprints!
You can take a look at vintage photographs at the National Photograph
Collections. Some of them are featured online. Or maybe you could get
more adventurous and actually become a collector!