Dating Your Photos

While you may spend more time organizing your photos than you spend with your significant other, today’s post is not about that kind of dating!  One of the things I find fun about organizing photos is trying to figure out when a photo was taken.

Digital cameras attach the date to the metadata of each photo taken but what do you do about older pictures?  What if you inherited a box of photos from a relative or discovered an old box of your own?  This is when you get to play detective (or in my case, librarian).

If you’re lucky, the photo processing at the time put the date processed right on the front of the photo.  In the 1950s and 1960s, this might be on the white space around the photo.  In the 1970s and 1980s, it might be on the corner.  In the 1990s, some cameras allowed the user to turn a digital date on and off which would then appear when processed.

If there’s no date on the front, flip the photo over.  Again, the date processed may appear on the paper.  If the photo is dated February 1949 and it’s a Christmas photo, you can almost confidently say it was taken in December 1948.  Remember, it could take months to use a roll of film, so use common sense to work backward through time to when the photo may have been taken.  This is true for dating slides as well — the date stamped on the cardboard or plastic around the slide is the processing date.

While it is definitely not a good practice to write on the back of pictures with a pen or marker (they bleed through eventually, may smear onto other photos, or indent if you press too hard), it certainly is helpful to the one researching the photo.  I have been fortunate to read all kinds of details about old pictures because someone took the time to write on the back.  There are pencils appropriate for doing this, but today that detail is usually attached to the digital version of the photo.

So what if there is no easy way to date the photo?  That’s when you look closely at the type of processing (see the Timeline below for clues), the style of clothing worn, the furnishings in the room or cars on the street, and any other available detail.  You would be surprised at what can help you figure a timeframe out.  I’ve seen touristy shirts on people in the background (Disney 1992) and license plates on cars (MICH  66).  Again – you don’t need to be exact, but now you can put the photo in the appropriate decade.

If you have a helper, let them in on the tips you just learned.  Another set of eyes might find a detail you missed.  You’ll have your photos organized in no time.  Have fun dating your photos!


1839-1860 – The daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface.

mid-1850s to 1900 – Stereoscopic photographic views (stereographs) were popular in the United States and Europe

1860-1900 – Tintypes at first were presented in cases surrounded by narrow gilt frames, but by the 1860s this elaborate presentation had been abandoned, and the metal sheets were simply inserted in paper envelopes, with a cutout window the size of the image.

1860s – Carte-de-visite, named because the size of the mounted albumen print (4 by 2.5 inches) corresponded to that of a calling card.

1860s – Cabinet prints were 5.5 ins x 4 ins photos mounted on cards 6.5 x 4.25 ins. with the photographer’s name and address on the back of the card (or occasionally below the photo on the front of the card).

1870s – Minettes were photos about 1.5 ins x 2.5 ins mounted on cards 1.625 ins x 3 ins.

Early 1900s – Panel prints 5.25 ins x 1.75 ins

Early 1900s – Popular roll film

  • 2 ins x 1 ins for Kodak Brownie – 1900
  • 3.25 ins x 2.25 ins for Brownie2 – 1901/2
  • 2.5 ins x 1.625 ins  OR 1.625 ins x 1.625 ins – 1912

1950s-1960s – 3.5 x 3.5 inches square

1960s – color photos reach the masses, used by late 1960s

1970s – Polaroids most popular this decade (small resurgence in the early 2000s)

1980s – 3×5 prints

1990s – panoramic format (4×8, 4×12)

1990s to present – 4×6


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