Aunt Bessie’s photo collection is a mess!

I’m sure we all have a nice pile of photographs that Aunt Bessie left us and the who, what, where, when and why is a mystery.

So I thought I would share some basic information that might get your brain ticking and thinking about your photographs in a new light and maybe some ‘bingo!’ moments will happen! So how can you date photographs?

Photograph types

Daguerrotpyes (1840-1855) – The person or their family would have been very affluent to have a daguerrotype made. They are generally housed in a small leather case and lined with velvet. The image is a direct positive made in the camera on a silver plated copper or brass plate.

Ambrotypes (1851-1880) – This form was cheaper to produce than dageurrotypes, making photographs more accessible to those not as well off. The image is a positive made in the camera on a sheet of glass using the wet plate collodion process. It did not have the shiny metallic surface of the daguerrotype. 

Tintypes (1860-1918) – Even cheaper than ambrotypes. The base was an iron plate and also used the wet plate collodion process.

Carte de visite (1860-1899) – Paper picture mounted on card, generally 4″ x 2.5″. On the reverse the photographers details were usually found.

Cabinet cards (1866-1914) – Paper picture mounted on the photographers trade card.

Tips for dating photographs

  • Look at the ‘types’, as above – This may give you an indication of the date range of the photograph.
  • Look at the periphery of the photograph – What is the story behind the photograph? What significant world events may have been happening at the time? Could it have been someones birthday? Is it at a house that you can remember from your childhood? Are there any small clues that could point you towards understanding the bigger picture?
  • Are there any details of the photographer on the photograph? – You can check local telephone directories to work out when the photographers business was operational and this in turn can give your photograph a date range.
  • Look at the styles, conventions and fashions of the photograph – there are lots of photography books that outline what was in vogue and when in photography circles throughout the ages. Check out call no. 770 in the adult non-fiction and local history collections at your library to see if there are any related titles.
  • Get talking with your family members! Who knows what information they might have squirreled away!

As you begin to discover information about your photographs you should be recording everything onto a piece of paper or in a word document. Assign your photograph a number (pencil it on the reverse in the top right hand corner) and also put this number onto the document on which you are recording your information. Store all your photographs together and in order and create a  file for your documentation (again in order) so you can easily cross reference your photograph with any documentation that you have created and vice versa.

That’s just the icing on the cake….then you have to think about whether you will create multiple collections from your photographs, how to store them correctly and in housing of archival standards, how you will choose to mount them, where you will store them at your home, where to go if you want photographs restored, making sure that you don’t store certain negatives and photographs together due to the effects they may have on each other…

In short…if you are going to embark on sorting through Aunt Bessie’s photo collection, think about the bigger picture and plan wisely. It’s not a hard or expensive project to undertake. It just requires some thought, time, patience and dedication. The State Library often have free workshops that are a great starting point for those interested in this kind of thing. Check out or contact for more information.