Types of 19th Century Photographs: The First Step to Identification

March has arrived and its time to start thinking about spring.  It’s a perfect time to pull out your old family photos! I’m going to focus on different types of photographs by era and how you can use information about the size, material and features to determine an approximate age.  

Let’s start from the earliest known type of photos and work our way up to the 20th century.

Daguerreotype:

This photo is a cased image, meaning you won’t find it loose in your collection.  Often times these would be placed between plates of glass in its early history and later many ornate cases were developed to display it.

Daguerrotypes first appeared in 1839, but most people report images from the peak period of 1842-1858.  These photos were still produced until 1862, but weren’t as popular in later years due to advances of other types of photos.

 Daguerreotype

Daguerreotype

How do you know if your photo is a daguerrotype? If its under glass or in a case that’s your first clue.  When you look at one, you’ll notice it has a mirror-like surface. Some of the common sizes included 2 ⅝” x 3 ¼” and a 2”x 2 ½” size.

Ambrotype:

Ambrotypes first appeared in 1854, but they were most popular from 1856-1860. Popularity started fading after that and by 1866 they weren’t being produced anymore.  An ambrotype is an image on glass and you will also only find it in a case. It may be easy to confuse these with a tintype (which we will talk about next). Common sizes included a 3 ¼”x 4 ¼”, 2 ⅝” x 3 ¼” and a 2” x 2 ½” size.

ambrotype.jpg

TinType:
 

Tintypes appeared on the scene in 1855 and were most popular 1861-1871.  However, it's important to note that after 1871, tintypes tended to be a novelty at fairs and events and were available through 1900. Tintypes are created on an iron plate. In the early years they appeared in a case, but later they were mostly loose. You can easily tell a tintype from an ambrotype by looking at the back.  The back of a tintype will look metallic. Special caution: Do not open an ambrotype cased image! It’s very easy to damage the photo with the slightest touch. Common sizes include 3 ¼” x 4 ¼”, 2 ⅝” x 3 ¼”, 2” x 2 ½”.

 An unidentified tintype from my collection

An unidentified tintype from my collection


 

CDV

CDV, an abbreviation for Carte-de Visite, was first seen in 1859.  They were most popular from 1863-1877, but you would still see some produced as late as 1882. These photos are pictures on a thin paper and then mounted on thick card stock.  The earlier images were thinner and as time progressed they became thicker. Most of these photos have a sepia tone to them. They were almost always 2 ⅜” x 4 ¼” making them fairly easy to identify.

 An unidentified CDV from my collection taken in England

An unidentified CDV from my collection taken in England

 The back of the CDV.  Mounting on cardstock gave photographer's the ability to identify themselves and advertise their studio. 

The back of the CDV.  Mounting on cardstock gave photographer's the ability to identify themselves and advertise their studio. 

Cabinet Cards:

Family’s tend to have more of these photos in their collection since they survived more often than the earlier photos.  Cabinet cards first arrived in 1866, but were most popular from 1875-1895. You do still seem some cabinet cards being produced through 1900. Cabinet cards are like CDVs in that they are an image produced on a thin piece of paper and then mounted on a piece of card stock.  The earliest images still contained the sepia tone, but later photos showed more sharp silver and black tones. You will notice different types of edges on cabinet cards depending on their age and the style of the photographer. Most cabinet cards are 6 1/2 “ x 4 ¼ “, but you might occasionally see another size.

 Cabinet card with unique edging

Cabinet card with unique edging

20th-century photography

These photos will vary greatly, but essentially if your photo does not display any of the characteristics of the photos above, it was likely created from about 1895 and later. One popular type was a real photo postcard (RPPC).  This was a personal photograph with a postcard printing on the back so you could send it to family friends.

 Front of a RPPC

Front of a RPPC

 Back of an RPPC

Back of an RPPC

This is a very basic overview of different types of photos, but there are many other clues in photographs you can use to help date them even further.  I’ll be speaking at the Downers Grove Library on May 10th if you'd like to learn more about how to piece together the clues.

For more details and to RSVP: Check out the event here

Do you need help identifying your old photographs?  Contact us with your questions.