19th Century Photo Types: A Breakdown to Help You Date Old Family Pictures

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19th Century Photo Types: A Breakdown to Help You Date Old Family Pictures


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If you’re a passionate family history buff like us, everyone from your mother to your Great Aunt Sally knows that they can pawn off boxes of old family photos for you to peruse to your heart’s content.

Sifting through vintage photos can be a family historian’s dream, that is, until you find out that you just can’t seem to identify the time period in which certain photos were taken.

Much like how genealogical resources and classes are helpful to discovering and sharing your family story, knowing some photography history can also be beneficial when it comes to identifying origins of old photos.

The following common types of vintage photos, their photographic processes and characteristics could help you positively identify some of your long-lost ancestors.

Common 19th Century Vintage Photo Types

1. Daguerreotypes

Daguerreotype Vintage Photo

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The daguerreotype was created by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre and is known by photography experts as the first practical form of photography. Daguerreotypes were produced on a thin copper metal support that had a polished coating of silver that was mirror-like. Daguerreotypes were sealed in glass for protection. In America, daguerreotypes were often placed in hinged, wooden cases with paper or leather coverings.

  • Height of Popularity: 1839-1860
  • Distinguishing Features: They can either take on the look of a negative or a positive depending on how the light hits them and the angle in which you’re viewing them. Also look for their highly-polished silver support.

2. Salt Prints (Talbot’s Process)

Harvard 1860s Salt Print

In 1841, William Henry Fox Talbot patented the process of salt printing — the first photographic process that used sodium chloride to make photos more light-sensitive. Salt printing was also the first process to utilize both a negative and a positive allowing photographers to create prints of larger quantities.

  • Height of Popularity: 1839-1860
  • Distinguishing Features: This photo type can encounter serious fading problems, so if you find a very faded old photo coupled with a smooth yet dull surface, lack of fine detail and a silver image inside the actual fibers of the photo’s support paper, you could have a salt print on your hands.

3. Albumen Prints

Young Girl Albumen Print Vintage Photo

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In 1850, Louis-Desire Blanquart Evrard improved upon Talbot’s salt prints by introducing albumen paper. Photographers would coat a thin sheet of paper with egg white which would hold light-sensitive silver salt on the surface of the paper, preventing image fading. Once it was dry, albumen prints were used just like salted-paper prints and the image would form by the darkening properties of the sun on the chemicals. Most of the surviving photographs from the 19th century are on albumen paper.

  • Height of Popularity: 1855-1890
  • Distinguishing Features: Albumen prints take on a rich, purple-brown hue. When you examine these photos, look for paper fibers through the albumen overlay. You can also usually see a fine lateral cracking across the glossy photo surface. The support is typically thin and also coated with albumen.

4. Carte de Visite (CDVs)

CDV Vintage Portrait

Albumen prints were often mounted on cardboard carte-de-viste (CDVs). Introduced in the 1850s in Paris, France by Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi, CDVs were very popular in both the United States and Europe until the turn of the 20th century.

  • Height of Popularity: 1860-1890
  • Distinguishing Features: You can distinguish a CDV from other card mounts mostly by the size: 2.5 x 4 inches (63 x 100 mm) — or slightly less at times. Look also for the photographer’s imprint and the type of image itself (most CDVs are portraits). All of these characteristics can help you determine a correct date within just a few years of the photo’s origin.

5. Ambrotypes

Ambrotype Civil War Portrait

In 1854, the ambrotype became a popular photographic print method which used the wet-plate collodion process to create a positive photograph on glass. Each photo was unique and could not be duplicated — much like using a Polaroid camera.

  • Height of Popularity: 1854-Mid-1860s
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for dark purple, blue or red glass support. These photos may also be found presented on a mount with a case just like daguerreotypes. You can easily distinguish a daguerreotype from an ambrotype since ambrotypes always appear positive when viewing from any angle.

6. Tintypes

African-American Family Portrait Tintype

Introduced in 1856, the tintype — also known as a melainotype or ferrotype — was produced on a plate of thin metal. And just like the ambrotype and daguerreotype, the method didn’t use negatives and was directly exposed in the camera. Some small tintypes were also placed in cardboard mounts much like the CDV.

  • Height of Popularity: 1856 – 1900
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for a thin, metallic plate holding the positive image to distinguish a tintype from an ambrotype. Also try to look for mount plates that are brown or red. The most common size to look for is 2 ½ x 3 ½ inches.

7. Cabinet Cards

Boxing Vintage Cabinet Card

Introduced in 1866, the cabinet card, like the CDV, was an albumen-coated, card-mounted photograph which was also quite popular in America until the 1890s.

  • Height of Popularity: 1870 – 1890s
  • Distinguishing Features: Look for card-mounted photos that are 4.25 x 6.5 inches (108 x 164 mm). Most are portraits and don’t include the name of the subject. An extensive logo can typically be found on the back of the card.

8. Hyalotype

Hyalotype Vintage Slide

Invented in the 1850s, hyalotypes were used in “Magic Lanterns” where their positive images on glass plates were projected onto screens. They were widely popular until modern slides came along in the 1950s.

  • Height of Popularity: 1875-1950s
  • Distinguishing Features: If you come across old family slides, just know that the most common size of a hyalotype is 192 mm x 83 mm. They were also always produced in black and white, yet some could be hand-tinted.

Here’s a quick chart to help you remember some of these dates.

Identifying and Dating 19th Century Photographs -

Have you come across any of these popular vintage photo types during your research? Let us know in the comments! Now that you’re equipped with vintage photo knowledge, you may be able to add those previously unknown ancestors and their stories to your Crestleaf Family Tree!

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5 Comments
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  • April 24, 2015 at 4:54 am

    My husband and I are buying a log cabin on the lake front in Monticello, Ky. On the chimney outside at the top it says “John Burgess 1867. We have been told he built it. We have looked him up, but not much to be found. Any suggestions? We would like to know more about him.

  • Philis Knox
    April 13, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    I have a charcoal portrait of a man and woman. Have ancestors that came from Germany in 1881. It is probably 15 by 20 inches. The beard on the man looks as if it is the same as the actual portrait of my great great grandfather as an older man. Are their books or articles that tell you about clothing styles that might help date the picture?

  • Great Aritcle
    April 12, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    What a great, concise and informative article — thanks a lot.

  • Rose Earley
    April 8, 2015 at 8:32 am

    How would you date post card pictures of family? I have several of these. One has the subjects standing on the back of a train.

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