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Tuesday’s Tip – Dating Photographs
September 13th, 2011 by Jessica

I have spent many moons scanning and cataloging images for my family archive.  It contains more than 6,000 images which were all painstakingly dated and fully detailed and tagged with descriptions and locations to the best of my ability.  Documents can be fairly straight forward since many of them contain a date written upon them.  Photographs, however, are often much trickier.

My Mom did an excellent job throughout the years of writing the exact date on the back of our family photos.  I thank her so much for that – it makes sorting and organizing the photos much easier today.  She often wrote the exact date and day of the week on the back of the pictures, which is amazing.

My DaD on the other hand…  he didn’t often write dates on things.  (Sorry DaD, it’s true.)  To his credit, he has tried to go back and write dates on photos decades later, but I have learned to take those dates as a starting point. :)  I recently came across a photo that has his handwriting on the back: “Diane and Carol, 1977?” just above the ink stamp from the developer that shows “June 1980″ as the film date…  Thankfully he is getting much better at dating old photographs and has recently helped me to identify many pictures correctly.  Yay DaD!

I often get asked how I date photos, especially when I have no worldly clue when the photo was taken.  There are many books on the subject, including several that target specific time periods and help you identify dates based on clothing, backgrounds, style of portraiture, wardrobe and more.  They can be a priceless resource when trying to identify an ancestor’s photo from the earlier parts of the 20th century.

My mother, Diane

My mother, Diane

Since I grew up in the 1980′s, most of the pictures of my childhood are not covered in these types of books.  Instead, I have relied a lot on my knowledge of pop culture and family events to help date photos.  As an example, take this lovely picture of my mother.  I offer the following process of elimination which led me to a fairly accurate date for this one:

  1. This photo was taken in the living room of the house I grew up in.  I know this because of the curtains behind her.
  2. Since I know my mother moved out of our house in August 1987, I can safely assume this photo was taken before then.
  3. I know she won the VCR that you can see behind her on top of the television in a radio contest sometime in 1985, so I know it wasn’t 1984 or before.  There’s also a bowling trophy on the TV which I believe she won in 1985 around the same time as the VCR, so that helps confirm the early side of the date spectrum.
  4. Close-up of Items

    Close-up of Items

    If you look very closely at the items on the table behind her, you can see what appears to be a sewing kit and a magazine which doesn’t really help me much.

  5. On top of the magazine are three heart dangle bracelets, which was a very popular thing for my sister to be wearing in 8th grade which would have been 1985-1986 for her.  This helps confirm my initial thoughts on time frame.
  6. Then I realized the book Mom is sitting on is a comic book of the popular strip Cathy.  I inherited it from my sister as a hand-me-down a few years later and read it many times.
  7. I know my sister received the comic book as a gift.  It must have been received for Christmas 1985 or for her birthday in June 1986.
  8. Based on my mother’s choice of long sleeve shirt and jeans, I have to imagine it would have been cold in Michigan when this photo was taken.
  9. Based on all of those details, I believe this photo was taken during the first few months of 1986 – after Christmas and before it warmed up in the Spring.

This is a simple example of the types of details I look for in photos to help date them.  Does it matter whether it was taken in January or February or March in 1986?  Not terribly in this case.  I am satisfied with “Early 1986″ as the date for this one. In the case of your photo, these extra-sensory detective skills might just make all the difference in the world.

I wish you the best of luck in researching and dating your family photographs!

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© 2013 Jessica M. Green