A Belle and a Wild Child
It’s August, it’s hot, and I have plans to only work on projects that involve sitting still and sipping cooling drinks. One that fits the bill is cataloging the antique photographs I’ve collected over the last 20 years.
Here’s what I do: I scan the picture in at 600 dpi, which is as high as my scanner can go. Then I can look at it enlarged, and I use the editing tools to adjust tone, contrast, and so on so I can see all the details better. I note down on my spreadsheet the type of collar, sleeve, fabric, etc. At that point, usually I have a pretty good idea of what decade I’m looking at, and I go hunting in all my costume books for those details that will help me figure out the year. (Some resources are below.)
On the cabinet cards, which are cardboard, there are often printers’ names and addresses, and I can hunt for those too, to find what years they were in business.
But the earliest pictures I have are tintypes, which are generally not marked, so I have to use the clues from the style of the mat and case if there is one, or just from the picture. Tintypes are actually thin iron sheets and not tin at all. They were invented in 1856, and most popular during the 1860s, so, within that small time bracket, it seems like it would be easy to date pictures quickly. But I am finding out I don’t know nearly as much about 1800s fashions as I thought I did.
This picture seems to be the oldest one I have.
Her dress is made of two different fabrics, a plaid and a small design of three triangles, with white undersleeves. She has drop earrings, a gold necklace, and what looks to be a pocket watch tucked into her sash. The full skirt and off-shoulder style puts the picture in the 1850s-1860s, and the hair ornament of needlework circles (possibly tatted) helps me narrow it to about 1859, thanks to a picture in My Likeness Taken by Joan Severa.
This next picture has me stumped. It is unusual, because the girl’s dress is so plain and ill-fitting, and yet she has elaborate jewelry. And I have never seen such cropped and messy hair in any other picture! The woman seems very neatly and conservatively dressed, and her clothes look to be of good quality. She does not seem the type to be without a comb.
There is a picture of three girls from 1862-63 on p. 230 of Dressed for the Photographer, and one has a very similar locket, and one has (combed) hair about this same length. But their dresses have more detailing and much fuller skirts. So is our girl above wearing something made for someone else? A charity dress? Why is it so plain?
While enlarging the pictures gives me a lot of new details for clues, it also sends me on hunts to find out more. Like in the picture above, I would love to know more about the little bar pins on the woman’s sleeves, and about the textile next to her. Even when I zoom in, I can’t see any identifiable texture there to tell me what technique was used to make it. And I can already tell that when I get to my cabinet cards, I will want to find the stories of all the photographers.
If you can help me out with any more information, I would appreciate it! I’ll be right here down this nice cool shady new rabbit hole. 🙂
Resources: Identifying and Dating 19th Century Photograph Types
My Likeness Taken:Daguerreian Portraits in America by Joan L. Severa
Dressed for the Photographer:Ordinary Americans and Fashion, 1840 -1900 by Joan L. Severa