Family History Photos – How old photos can unlock clues

Family history photos can aid you in your research by identifying the persons in them, what they are wearing, and when it was likely taken and sometimes the location as well. We will review how old photos can unlock clues and the types you may find. In order to be effective at using old photos for clues or identifying people, it helps to have a grasp on the different types of photographs used as well as common fashion.

Let us go over the photo types and the common types of fashion you might see to accompany them.

The Daguerreotype

These were in use 1839-1860. The had a mirror-like surface printed on a silver-coated plate of copper and protected by a matt and a sheet of glass. This was almost always enclosed in a case and is not something you would see in a photo album. Early photos would see people in very conservative types of clothing. Women hairstyles were worn in very long length at the beginning of the era and in clean up-do. Towards the 40’s you might start to see ringlets with hair arraigned up and towards the back, this continued as time went one, for a wonderful description of hair and fashion visit here. This is the earliest confirmed photo of Abraham Lincoln.


Was in use from 1854-1865. It was a slight improvement to its predecessor in that the picture was printed on the back of a sheet of glass, with another sheet of glass behind the photo. Later Ambrotypes would feature it printed on the front of the glass with black painted backgrounds to make the negative image appear positive. These were also always in a case of some kind. You would expect to see a lot of hoop skirts in the 1850’s. By the 1860’s full hoop skirts that extended off the back to give an S form appear with Chignon moving to the back of the head.


Was on the scene from 1856-1878. Much like it sounds, the photo was metal. This had the image printed on a piece of iron. The early version came in a case but as photography became cheaper they were seen more and more standalone without a case. In fact, although stiff, they were the first photos suitable for a photo album. By the 1870’s the hair got taller with pompadours and we saw the infamous bustle hit the fashion scene.

Carte de Visite

1859-1889. Was the first type of negative from which they would make copies, in this case on to small calling card size portraits. This allowed people to take one photo and share many with family and friends instead of each photo being one of a kind. These were very popular during the American Civil War era as a means for Soldiers and family and friends to keep in touch. By early 1870’s they were supplanted by “cabinet cards.”

Cabinet Card was used from 1866-1903. Came in the large 4 x 6 sizes. You can identify this type as it was thin paper glued to heavy card stock. The included logos and information on the back of the card often. Women were sporting pompadours and strange and wild styles like purposefully frizzy hair. By 1890’s they rocked the Edwardian Gibson Girl hairstyles.

Cabinet Card

Personal photography was responsible for the decline of professional portraits owing in large to famous brownie box by Kodak in 1900. But with a little knowledge, this short article should have you spotting the difference quite quickly.

Personal photography also went through several phases in size and even pre-printed frames on the photos. I will not cover this in this article. Clues for later personal photography will be much the same though, hair, clothing, and items around them.

Early personal photography started showing up with my ancestors in the late 1880’s. I had to use all sorts of clues to date most of them. The clothes worn, the size of the negatives, even the fencing they stood in front of.

Other items in photos can help you date them. Looking up fashion focusing on things such as colors, hats, hairdo’s and shoes. For women always look at the bodice and skirts for clues. For help with hairdoes visit this nice source: victorian hairstyles.

Look at machinery in the photos, labels, brands, can help date them. If there are automobiles look at them and at the license plates.

Look at the photographer on the photo if one is shown, this can tell you where it was taken and you can look up records to find out when they were in business to narrow down the years.

Additional resource would be to listen to this podcast: 

Ancestral Findings Podcast Select Podcast episode # 69


In one photo of my 3rd Great Grandparent’s children, I had no idea what date it could be. I knew whose children they were but, not which children. If I could narrow down the year then I could narrow down the children. They were standing in front of agricultural fencing. The boy had on Levi bib overalls the girl’s plain dresses with black leotard stockings and leather shoes. Both wore hats and held flowers. The dresses seemed to be very typical pioneer style clothing from late 1800’s too early 1900’s. So not being a clothing expert couldn’t really narrow it down too much more but, then I noticed the fencing. It was wire, it was squared, not like chain link, after some research, I found out it was called wire woven fencing and looks like it was being sold from 1895 on. After this, I estimated ages of the children and I was very easily able to name each of them. I estimate the photo to have been taken about 1900.

I found a wonderful old resource for dating clothing that is no longer available online. I will retype new factsheets based on them and make them available soon.


Daguerrotype – By Attributed to Nicholas H. Shepherd, based on the recollections of Gibson W. Harris, a law student in Lincoln’s office from 1845 to 1847. – Library of Congress, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25071089

Tin Type By unknown(Lifetime: unknown) – Original publication: unpublishedImmediate source: The image was digitized at Gawain Weaver Art Conservation, PD-US-expired, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36457305

Carte de Visite – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carte_de_visite

Cabinet Car: By Groh & Bro. Photographic studio, Wisconsin – David Ball, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2043909

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