As I’m invited to handle more family collections of photos, I see more shapes and sizes of prints from years gone by. It is also interesting to see the variety of sizes of photo albums that were created to house these old photos. The 4×6 print has been a standard for so long, it’s easy to forget how long it took to get there.
How do you sort old photos in chronological order? If you’re lucky, they are in photo albums labeled with dates to help you figure out when the pictures were taken and developed. More likely, they are loose or pasted into scrapbooks and magnetic albums where various sizes reside on the same page. You probably already know to look for clues in clothing, hairstyles and backgrounds (https://cherishyourphotos.wordpress.com/2017/01/26/time-to-play-detective/), but you may be able to get close by looking at the photo itself.
Unfortunately, the evolution of photographs resulted in many sizes being available depending on the camera and processing used. Rectangular or square, tiny or large, photos have been printed in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. This timeline may help guide you in finding the likely era of your photo:
1839-1860 – The daguerreotype image is formed on a highly polished silver surface.
mid-1850s to 1900 – Stereoscopic photographic views (stereographs) were immensely 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 (120) for Kodak Brownie 1900
- 3.25 ins x 2.25 ins (120) for Brownie2 – 1901/2
- 2.5 ins x 1.625 ins (8 exposures) OR 1.625 ins x 1.625 ins (12 exposures (127 film) 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)
Storing different-sized photos
So how do you store a photo collection that’s made up of so many different sizes? Not easily. You can store photos loosely in an acid-free box, place them in photo-safe scrapbooks by using acid-free adhesive to attach them to paper, or separate them by size and find appropriate albums to store them. You could also digitize them and reprint them in a more standard size to keep them together.
Your old photograph collection has character, but it can present challenges. Enjoy the process of sorting out your pictures and figuring out when they were taken. Then protect them for future generations to enjoy.