Over the next few weeks, I’ll be showing you how to date your old family photographs by format and process, using the photographic techniques that dominated the first 100 years of commercial photography.
Frustratingly, old family photographs often come without any accompanying documentation so it can be very difficult to identify their age. Old photographs are full of clues that can help you to do this, such as clothes or hairstyles, and we have a list of useful contacts and resources that may be able to help you date your photographs by fashion.
But even without these pointers, it is possible to date a photograph by its type, rather than what it depicts. One way to do this is to consider the methods used to create photographs.
There have been hundreds of different photographic processes, each with their own distinguishing characteristics. Fortunately, most family photographs were made using just a few photographic techniques—for example daguerreotypes, collodion positives and ferrotypes.
As well as the process, you can also tell a lot from a photograph’s size or ‘format’.
Most processes and formats were only popular for a limited time, so if you can identify these you will also have a rough idea of the photograph’s date.
With just a basic knowledge of what these physical clues can tell you, you are well on your way to revealing the mysteries of your family photographs and their subjects.
How to identify a Daguerreotype (1840s–1850s)
For the first in this series of posts, we’ll take a look at some clues that can help to spot a daguerreotype among your old family photographs.
About the daguerreotype process
The daguerreotype was invented by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787–1851), and it was the first commercial photographic process. A highly polished silver surface on a copper plate was sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine fumes. After exposing the plate in a camera it was developed with mercury vapour.
Richard Beard opened England’s first public photographic studio in March 1841 in London’s Regent Street, after buying the rights to be sole patentee of the daguerreotype process in England.
Daguerreotypes were sold in Britain throughout the 1840s and into the early 1850s. Access to the studios of photographers working with the daguerreotype process around 1850 would have been limited to the middle and upper classes.
Use these clues to identify a daguerreotype
Daguerreotype images are very delicate and easily damaged. Daguerreotypes always come in protective cases, often made of leather and lined with silk or velvet.
They were made on highly polished silver plates. Depending on the angle at which you view them, they can look like a negative, a positive or a mirror.
If exposed to the air, the silver plate will tarnish. Though they were sealed under glass, it is very common to find characteristic signs of tarnishing around the edges of the daguerreotype.
Daguerreotypes were produced in a range of sizes, but most portraits are quite small, usually around 2×3 inches.
Examples of daguerreotypes in our collection
John Adams Whipple (1822–1891), working with George Phillips Bond (1825–1865), the director of the Harvard College Observatory, endeavoured to create lunar daguerreotypes of a quality never seen before. One of Whipple and Bond’s lunar daguerreotypes was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 where it won a medal.
Inscribed in ink, ‘For Mrs Bridges Taylor / with the very sincere regards / Prince Liholiho / Gerrit Parmele Judd / Prince Kamahameeaha / Boston 24th May 1850. To be left at St Katherine’s Lodge / Regent’s Park / or the Foreign Office / London’. Signed by all three sitters.
Judd was a Congregational cleric and Foreign Minister to the Hawaiian Kingdom. He and the Princes visited Europe and America on a diplomatic mission in 1849 and 1850. The Boston portrait studio, Southworth and Hawes, operated from 1843 to 1863.
Next week I’ll show you how to identify collodion positives, aka ambrotypes (early 1850s–1880s).