Family Photographs and How to Date Them

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But other times, you're going to have to set pieces aside and wait until you gather more clues to help you figure out how they all fit together as a whole. You can't rule out looking for missing date information in places that are sometimes obvious yet easy to overlook. One of these places is the markings photo processors left us when developing our film.

Early last year, I found a collection of prints from a family vacation we took to Disney World. I wasn't sure when this trip was just from looking at them. My Mother was nice and wrote captions on the backs, but this time she didn't include the month or even the year that it happened. Months later, I happened to come across a few slides my Dad took at a big theme park. Come to find out, they just happened to be from that same trip to Disney World! And it gets even better. Most slides have a date printed or stamped on them when they were developed.

I can't say for sure this is the exact month and year we took our trip.

But chances are, my Dad had the film developed that same month or the month after. So this date gets me really close at least! Often, depending on the material the slide mount is made from, the photo processing date is either printed or stamped. You can see in this blowup image the stamped date that is almost invisible to the naked eye. Then I can label all of them with this month and year I found on the slides. Like I was saying, it's really is like investigative work at times. As I piece together groups of photos, misplaced in different boxes and bags in my parent's house, I am finding clues that add up over time.


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And then I can really get a lot further into the process of chronologically placing these groups or events in order. As far as prints, I rarely see any identifiable markings on their backs from processors. But, occasionally I will find a batch or two that were developed by a company that did print the processing date.

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Usually they are really faint and appear as almost watermarks. Various photo processing envelopes prints came in. Sometimes, they are actually being stored in the original envelopes or boxes the prints and slides came back from the developers in. There might be processing date stamps, printed copyright dates, or other visual clues to help you narrow down a date.

I've actually found a few paper cash register receipts from the developers with the date of purchase right there at the top, stuffed in the envelope with our stored prints! I found this copyright date printed on the plastic 35mm negative holder we got from the film processor. Try getting a good start organizing your undated photos chronologically by how a person ages in them. Some will be harder than others to decipher — sometimes a person won't appear to change much from one year to another.

This might be the best way for old photos of your parents — especially the ones before you were present. The initial unorganized state of chaos could be overwhelming to some people. But, once you have the beginnings of actual order, memories may come back. I was so jealous!

Online resources can help you piece together clues from different eras

This goes along well with the last suggestion about ordering photos by how a person is aging in them. If for example, you are trying to organize a large collection of photos of your Mom, ask her to write out a simple timeline outline of her life in chronological order. Note as any dates as she can remember or you can help her recover.

Be sure to list all major life events and the locations they occurred. My Grandmother travelled with my Mother all over the United States while she was growing up. They lived in many places before finally settling in Kentucky as adults. I have few really old photos in our collection — I mean ones that date back into the really early 's and mid to late 's. But for these, identifying clues such as the type of photograph, or the fashion subjects are wearing in the photo, could be important clues in discovering when the photo was taken.

For someone like myself who still knows little about any type of photo before the film stocks used in the 's, research will show there used to be types of photographs called daguerreotype , cabinet card and tintype. For example, if any of these are found to be represented in your collection, you will be able to narrow down a period of time when this type of photography was often used.

The same with fashion and clothing — even in more recent decades.

Dating Photographs Through Clothing

The 's here in the United States wasn't the only year for iconic fashion! Other periods had their own stand-out identifying style you can be on the look-out for. Especially with hats and other decorative accents like jewelry, scarves and shawls. Also, take into consideration the colors and patterns used not only in clothing, but also in the furniture and items throughout a photograph.

These are often clues to help you pinpoint a date range of a photo. That's little ol' me standing in front of a couch that couldn't have been the product of that many decades! Easy detective work here. Of course it's probably already occurred to you to ask your immediate family about the missing dates of certain photographs. Now, I know you probably haven't spoken to some of them in years or maybe even decades. And there might even be a good and unspeakable reason why you haven't! But putting those negative stories and police records aside, consider how much knowledge they may recall that you and your immediate family can't.

Or you could friend them on whatever social networking site is popular or maybe email them. And while the U. Postal Service is still in business, you could even send them a real paper letter! They may LOVE you for showing or giving them a copy of an old photo they were in! Remember, a photo of a birthday party may represent just another party you had growing up to you. But to your cousin, or that odd hairy neighbor who lived down the street from you that just happened to drop by that day, it might have been a life changing experience for them!


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Everyone is unique and files away memories in their brains differently than someone else. Oh of course I remember that birthday party of yours! You were so cute then. You had that cake decorated like a choo-choo train! And it was I remember that because my son had just turned 4 as well, just the month before, and so I knew exactly what present would be perfect for me to get you. It was popular at that time and so it was difficult to find in stores, so I bought one for both of you at the same time!

After reading all of this, you too might feel just like Patty D. Please know that, when trying to implement any of the suggestions I just gave you, just making small baby steps of progress now will feel like great strides at times later. Or maybe you could break it down a little bit further. Do whatever it takes, just to get you a little bit further along in organizing, sorting and labeling! And if this helps you to know, I scan my prints and slides completely out of order.

Date Your Old Photos: Tips from the Photo Detective

And then I move the photos around in my photo manager Aperture to put them into some sense of chronological order using many of the above techniques. I find this method to be easier for me because I am quick and comfortable with computers. So know this is a great option if you are the same way.

3. Look for Distinct Links to your Family

If I personally had to do it this way, I never would have gotten started because like I said, our photos are almost completely out of order and my parents live 2, miles away. It would have been extremely challenging to organize the entire collection first without their physical presence and help. So wrapping this up, Patty D , I am so glad to hear you have such a good start on your photo collection. I bet it feels good!

And this was a great question you asked by the way. It's a question without an easy and single definitive answer that will work for everyone. So, that means there are many people out there asking it.

3 Ways to Date Old Photographs - wikiHow

So thank you for asking me! I hope some of this will be of help to you. I'm sure some of it is obvious and you've already thought with it. But, maybe the way in which I wrote it out will shake loose something in your head that could possibly help you out more. And for you, reading this, I am sure these suggestions are just the beginning of what could help Patty and others out with this problem. Can you think of any other ideas that may have helped you out that could help someone organize and date their photos that I didn't mention here?

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