Your amazing contributions to the Moments in Time photo series have really blown us away here Archives Outside. In fact, it became our most successful series on the blog after just the second post!
Many images in our collection have come to us with only the barest of details attached. Your knowledge, interest and enjoyment in identifying dates and locations is helping us to fill in some of the blanks and, in turn, provide better access to the State’s archives.
A close rival in popularity to the photo posts is Useful Tips for Reading Handwritten Documents which became a long list of tips and tricks generated by comments from you and from State Records staff.
It got us thinking….can we create a similar list of useful tips for dating photographs? You have used such a variety of methods in dating the featured photos that we thought you’d like to share them in one place and help out those who are new to the ‘craft’.
For instance, do you date photos from: the clothing people are wearing; the cars you see; the progress of building construction; the appearance of telegraph poles; an historic event…or something unusual?
I’ll start off the list with something I learned while following the advice of a Flickr friend.
| Buildings and street scapes | Cars | Clothing | Photographers | Railways | Other |
Buildings and street scapes
- Old Colonial (1788-1840)
- Victorian (1840-1890)
- Federation (1890-1915)
- Inter-War (1915-1940)
- Post-War (1940-1960)
- Late 20th Century (1960-present)
- Australian residential styles
- Australian non-residential styles
- NSW Heritage database
- Book: A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architectural Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present by Apperly, Irving and Reynolds
- can help identify streets
- check old directories (Sands for Sydney and Sands & McDougall for Melbourne) for business names
- Google maps (street view)
- Old maps see Trove (National Library of Australia). Streets can change considerably over time
- Useful dates
- 1912-> license plates included “NSW”
- pre-1924 – license plates were black lettering on white background
- pre-1937 – license plates contained numerals only
- Vehicle registration plates of Australia
- Book: Australian Number Plates by the Blue Mountains Family History Association
- Examples of NSW number plates
- Are there initials or a name written on the photo that can identify the photographer?
- Book: Australians behind the camera : directory of early Australian photographers, 1841 to 1945
- Australian Railway Historical Society (AHRS) Library
- Railway Commissioners Annual Reports
- check when locomotives (and sometimes wagons and passenger cars) went into service to narrow down a date
- check when a railway station opened (as well as additions/extensions to the station)
- books by David Keenan on the Sydney Electric Tramway (many are available at AHRS bookshop at Central Station)
- The Greatest Public Work: the NSW Railways 1848-1889 by Robert Lee covers NSW developments during that era.
- Trove (from the NLA) is a great place to start. You can search, among other things: old newspapers, maps, photos, books as well as some digitised archives
- Picture Australia
- Australian pictorial history books
- Ask the locals – contact the local/family history society
If you’d like to help please leave your tips in the comments below and we will create a list of practical advice!
Iain Stuart says:
Any railway or tramway related photo with rolling stock in it can often be dated by reference to the date the rolling stock went into service. These dates are relatively easy to establish especially with locomotives and in many cases with wagons and passenger cars.
With a bit more research dates of station openings or changes of infrastructure such as signals or track layout can be determined and used to date photos (e.g Aunt Maud at Taree Station).
The same principals can be applied to photos of ships and planes.
Sometimes the photos even have the dates written on them but constant republishing has hidden this or disassociated the image from the original with the date on (dust storms at Broken Hill are a good example).
I tend to use quite a few techniques. Two examples are:
(1) The architecture of a building can provide much information. Australian building architecture can often be categorised into different eras – Old Colonial (1788-1840), Victorian (1840-1890), Federation (1890-1915), Inter-War (1915-1940), Post-War (1940-1960), Late 20th Century (1960-present). Each era has a unique style which can assist in determining the history of a building (and therefore, an estimate of a possible age of a photo).
(2) The clothing of individuals in a photo can also be useful. For example, identifying eras where women started wearing pants instead of solely wearing dresses, or the different designs of dresses can tell a lot. In addition, the different types of coats/hats men wore can also provide much detail. However, I find that basing a photo on clothing can be difficult in the subject area does not provide a good cross-section of individuals.
Rhonda Cetta-Hoye says:
Ask the Locals as well as contacting the Family History and or Historical Soc. Most Council Libraries have wonderful photo collections.
Fashions and hairstyles.
Keep them comming I love it.
Nicole Davis says:
Further to architectural details being a pointer:
Signs on buildings, combined with research in a relevant directory are also a big help if you have access to them. These tips are particularly helpful for scenes of city streets.
– Try to narrow down the scene to a particular period.
– Look at identifying signs on buildings. Business names abound on street scenes, as well as the name of proprietors, and are great pointers.
– Try to narrow it down to a particular street if the information isn’t listed on the image. In city centres like Sydney & Melbourne the streets are pretty distinctive and it is usually easy with a bit of practice to identify them
– Search the directories of the approximate period that you think you might be looking at for the businesses on that street. If you’ve narrowed down the street this is obviously going to be easier.
– Search for some of the businesses that are in the photograph. You can trace through directories when the business opened and if and when it closed.
This can help you narrow down the date of a photo somewhat.
These directories, such as Sands for Sydney and Sands & McDougall for Melbourne can be found at State Libraries and many public libraries.
Anthea Brown says:
What a fantastic start! And what a variety. Thank you for all these tips, our list is starting to expand already. I think it will be of great use to everyone here and to any newcomers interested in exploring old photographs in more depth.
All of the above plus common sense and luck!
TROVE – http://trove.nla.gov.au/
Recently an ordinary-looking photograph of two old ships at Wolloomooloo began to tell its story with the help of newspaper searches easily done on Trove. using Optical Character Recognition technology which is by no means perfect yet. The rusty hulks have a Sarah Bernhardt connection, and (possibly) the photo is dated by the shipping lists in the Sydney Morning Herald. Almost too easy! See comments and notes – http://www.flickr.com/photos/powerhouse_museum/3388853344/
Google maps / satellite / street view is an amazing tool. Google News Archive gets better too.
Old maps. See Trove
And lastly, high resolution images. For example BobMeade and I got this photo down to the nearest minute (!) using the PowerHouse Museum’s Zoomit function –
Jim Belshaw says:
A companion post – http://newenglandhistory.blogspot.com/2010/04/archives-outside.html
Anthea Brown says:
Coming via Twitter is this helpful link to http://www.fashion-era.com which includes a section called How to Date Old Photographs by the Costume. Thanks to @lifeasdaddy and @shaunahicks (originally tweeted by @FamilyStories)
Robert Mills says:
Some additional thoughts on dating photographs –
Who was the photographer of the image ?. Often initials appear on images and these can be traced to particular photographers/studios who may have lasted in business for only a brief time.
Frank Hurley, for example, appears to be in the Sydney postcard game for about 5-6 years prior to WW1 and during his time several sets of initials and marks are used on images. See http://www.photo-web.com.au/frankhurley/jfh/ for more details.
His images are distinctive due to excellent composition and professional reproduction. They are often colour tinted and rival what we now call ‘natural colour’ photography for quality. By contrast other photographers of the same period tended not to wash their bromides thoroughly and so their work is fading away. Technically imperfect.
Details concerning the type of photographic paper used can also assist the dating process. Just prior to WW1 many postcards and general photographs in NSW were issued on ‘Empire’ series paper stock. Kodak did not have a total monopoly.
Thinking about the purpose or intent of the image helps and a bit of lateral thinking can do wonders ! Why was the photo taken ?
A real challenge is to deal with the fact that the world changes a lot in 80-100 years and, in the urban context, buildings disappear – indeed whole streets can become virtually unrecognisable. The northern end of Regent St Redfern is a classic Sydney example. Reference to old street maps can greatly assist here.
In essence there are elements contained within the image which are traceable given the right set of records (eg technologies, fashions, architecture, signage etc) and also elements that relate to the technical reproduction of the image. What type of photographic technique/process was used ? When was such technique employed/popular ? The pace of technical change has been rapid, especially in the 20th century.
If the image was issued as a postcard then chances are other images of the same location will surface from rival photographic companies. Street scenes, public buildings, beaches, events and the harbour were repeatedly photographed thru time. Although the focus is to date a single image reference to other images of the same location or event can greatly assist a temporal placing. Another advantage of photographic postcards is that they may have a ‘upper dating limit’ thanks to the postal mark.
It is always a fascinating activity to date photographs !
Anthea Brown says:
More great tips here, the list is really growing now. Thank you again for sharing them!
Trove really is a wonderful resource.
Bob Meade says:
I’m not so good at dating photographs but I’d like to help by adding some useful links building on the excellent hints above. Mine are in no particular order.
If you know the photographer or studio from a mark on the print or negative then an indispensable aid is Sandy Barrie’s book
Australians behind the camera : directory of early Australian photographers, 1841 to 1945
Barrie uses years of research to give addresses and dates of operation for many famous and obscure Australian photographers of the olden days. The information is generally not available online, and nor does Barrie grant permission for copying of his book within libraries. If the commercial photographer who the photograph you have was only in business for a short time then this will narrow the date considerably.
Dating Old photographs from light or telegraph poles. Here is some information which may help:
NSW VEHICLE NUMBER PLATES
Wikipedia gives an overview
But one book I would like to consult is:
Australian Number Plates by the Blue Mountains Family History Association
apparently written specifically to aid dating photographs, I have not seen this book myself, but I want to check it out:
Photo examples of old NSW plates (I cannot vouch for accuracy):
When trying to date a photograph by the style of buildings, these may help.
Australian Residential Architectural styles:
Australian non-residential architectural styles:
The book A Pictorial Guide to Identifying Australian Architectural Styles and Terms from 1788 to the Present by Apperly, Irving and Reynolds has been recommended to me.
and also for general architecture, but with little Australian content the website http://www.greatbuildings.com/
If you know the actual building in your photograph, perhaps you will find some information on the NSW heritage database. By looking at various additions to the building, you may be able to narrow down a date range.
Here’s the heritage search:
and here’s an example of how I used it to give a date range for a State Records NSW photograph of North Sydney Post Office:
Australia’s Fashion history told in words and pictures:
For the identification of vintage cars, the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society has a page of their successes and failures in photographic identification, and also provide a help service in this regard:
The wonderful TROVE website has already been mentioned. A TROVE search incorporates results from Picture Australia which is also hosted by the National Library of Australia, but sometimes it is useful to search directly within the Picture Australia website here:
This will only help if a copy of the photograph or negative is held in one of the major Australian collections (and some minor ones) and has been recorded with a date or year or an indication of the associated event.
This technique can also be used on Flickr. Sometimes it is more difficult since Flickr is a worldwide photo sharing site but sometimes you can get lucky with the right search. Flickr also has many privately held old photographs uploaded which do not appear on Picture Australia.
The last tip I have is to gain experience in getting a general idea of the date range a photograph may fall into by reading and looking at Australian pictorial history books. Our libraries all over the place have plenty, start checking them out, flipping through the photos and reading the captions, with particular attention to the date or period they were taken. This background helps deciding where to start your quest for the date of the photograph you hold in your hand.
I would like it if someone could suggest websites for helping with the railway side of dating photographs such as the rolling stock and dates of station openings and extensions mentioned above.
[ Note: My friend Martin Miles helpfully suggested some of the resources I’ve mentioned above. ]
Anthea Brown says:
A bumper list there, Bob, and excellent additions to our list! The fashion link will be particularly useful as we haven’t yet heard from an early Australian fashion expert.
My strength is in identifying cars and trucks so I suggest the following tips.
Obviously the overall body shape gives a clue to era, maybe manufacturer and model. If not then dateable try:
– tyre/wheel size – basically skinnier profile and bigger diameters are earlier;
– radiator shape for veteran to vintage, front grill for later – some like RR or Bugatti radiators are pretty easy, as is a ‘coffin nose Willys’, as are the distinctive bonnet of early ‘Bulldog’ Mack trucks;
– visible badging or hubcap emblems – looking for manufacturers unique style and shapes;
– brakes (2 or 4 wheel brakes?), drive train (eg. is it chain drive?), steering (tiller or wheel?) and suspension – sometimes you can identify something unique to a manufacturer or range of vehicles – like the Ford T in the Moree photo (though you can’t assume all such are ‘T’s” as the T was sort of pirated and badged as the Palm and later the Renown!;
– body style – there are some stunning unique vehicles that enthusiasts recognise straight off, and there are some body styles that are fairly uniquely Australia – the early utilities and the “sloper”. Is the bodywork an example of bespoke coachbuilding or mass produced – does it match any particular builders style of coachwork?
p.s. give me some more photos with cars in them to date – I enjoy this so much. Jenny
Robert Mills says:
In relation to Bob Meade’s request for references for images of NSW railway subjects I would suggest David Keenan’s excellent series of (depot based) books on the former Sydney Electric Tramway system. There is also one for Newcastle. Very good for dating urban images.
Many of these books have been reprinted and can be obtained through the Australian Railway Historical Society (ARHS) NSW Division bookshop at Central Station. For books out of print Ebay or the local library are another option.
In terms of ‘heavy rail’ reference books Robert Lee produced an excellent book entitled ‘The Greatest Public Work’ the NSW Railways 1848-1889′ which covers NSW developments during that era.
Much of the NSW railway literature that has evolved is focussed on rolling stock developments – ie ‘nuts and bolts’ from a technical perspective.
ARHS have a reference library which can be handy for following up discrete issues/queries. A website based on material held at ARHS containing NSW railway/tramway information is found at:
The series of annual reports issued by the Railway Commissioners contain much of the basic information concerning opening dates of lines/stations etc but this information (I believe) has not yet been transferred to the web. Using the NLA Newspaper search function is probably a good enough proxy for such information as matters stand.
The subject area is vast in terms of both time and space, after all the NSW Railways have been turning wheels since 1855.
I am not sure of a single website that encompasses the lot !
Anthea Brown says:
Thanks for this extra information Robert, I will add it to the list. These railway tips will certainly help to fill in the gap!
Bob meade says:
Thanks, Robert Mills!
Elizabeth Hadlow says:
Another useful way to date photographs is by the photographic process that was used – for example Albumen photographs had mostly stopped being used by the early 1900s having been replaced by silver gelatine. Obviously some of these processes overlap, but they do give a starting point if no other clues are available. A useful resource for dating early photographic processes is the Kodak publication “The Care and Identification of 19th Century Photographic Prints” by James M. Reilly.
Louis Nadeau’s website photoconservation.com provides example images of different processes as well as a brief history and tips on how to identify them.
As the other respondents have already noted fashion is an important method of dating photographs. A useful publication for this is “Dating Family Photos 1850-1920” by Lenore Frost. This is a self-published book and is available for purchase on the internet.
As one of the other respondents has noted the photographer can also give a clue to the date of production. The Oxford University Press publication “The Mechanical Eye in Australia” by Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury is a good place to start to find photographers who were in practice in Australia from the earliest days of photography.
Great advice everyone. Thank you. Bob, I seem to recall when I worked in the Mitchell Library, there were very large albums of train photos. And a good tip about the albumen photos (I was able to possibly identify some family members because of the cutoff date for those early photos). Alan Davies a long time ago helped me personally with a family group photo. Three of the young women in the photo were wearing a similar dress with black velvet bodice trim. He could nominate a date of, I think 1885 because it matched a similar dress in a carte de visite from the Freeman Collection. I suggest, Anthea, that you perhaps organise a weekend workshop on identifying & dating photograps. Margot Riley, the costume curator, also from the Mitchell Library is extraordinary at dating images via costume & accessories. She might say the hairstyle & cap is 1885, the cape is 1895, when did she become a widow? A question I had never thought to ask?
Anthea Brown says:
Thanks Elizabeth, those books certainly sound worth a browse, if not reading cover to cover!
Lee, if only we had the time for a workshop. Thanks for your comment, your suggestion of the extra research into the people in the photos is one I hadn’t thought of either.
Rhonda Cetta-Hoye says:
Re: Dating by fashion. Use Picture Australia and type in catorgies for Men, Women Children, Weddings, Funerals, War ,in fact any events where there will be people and proberbly a bus or car in the back ground.
Many photos will give you an approx or factual date.
Helen Yoxall says:
Another resource is Lenore Frost’s Dating family photographs, 1850-1920. Essendon, Victoria, the author, c1991. Out of print though.
Another source to help date buildings and city scapes are the WW2 1943 aerial photos of Sydney and some suburbs viewable on the Department of Lands Spatial Information Exchange website [SIX Viewer], I think an app. download and registration are still required but a very useful website.
alistair cameron says:
The overhead wires on poles which may bring an adverse comment re a beautiful photo scene are capable of dating.
A very large number of thin wires supported via small insulators on several crossarms would be pre- 1900 telegraph wires made of steel. Notable in shots of towns and connections between towns especially when on railway property close to the rail tracks.
Ditto when leading to the oldest Post Offices. Such poles eventually served the 1900s houses shops etc with telephones.
A small number of thick wires supported on just one or two crossarms would be electric power wires made of copper or aluminium. The insulators are conspicuously large!!
Sources for research are moving targets! The dating info is held by the owners of the lines and in these unstable days of corporate change we find that even the Gas companies and Private owners may be the heritors.
Bye, ALISTAIR email@example.com
John Ruffels says:
A great thread. Good topic.
Some time ago, I suggested there was an urgent neglect of sundry photo collections Australia-wide.
Because of limited staffing resources, time and expertise, some marvellous image-resources are lying idle in shoe-boxes, in cabinets, in local libraries.
All the major state libraries have photographic curators with World-Class expertise.
Some time back I floated the idea of creating a methodology; incorporating such suggestions as posters have presented here.
There is a need for a tertiary course in photographic identification. Experts like Rob Mills, and Alan Davies and experts on costume, like Margor Riley, nominated by Lee above. To name but a few.
I am sure a weekend seminar or conference on such a subject would attract substantial interest if properly advertised.
For a couple of years, I spent time identifying police archival photographs from the Historic Houses Trust Book “CITY OF SHADOWS”.
If anyone feels like sharpening their powers of observation, and helping identifying the subjects in that rivetting book, I am sure the Curators of the Police & Justice Museum would appreciate it.
I have only identified eleven of them so far.
My only tip for identifying photos is: to sort them into approximate chronilogical or location order, then find someone who is an expert on that era or location.
Oh, and utilise a scanner and “Trove” digitised newspaper articles, two wonderful aids.
Anthea Brown says:
Thanks for the tip John; I’ll be adding that to the list! It would be great to attend the type of seminar you describe. They do come up from time to time; Fiona tells me that in November last year the Powerhouse Musuem hosted a Regional stakeholders day on “Photography collections – issues, challenges and resources” which by all accounts was a very informative day.
John Ruffels says:
Thanks for that information Anthea,
I’ll try to link in and then attend the next one.
Two more tips:
ONE: If your streetscape photo has signs and writing visible in it, and Sands & McDougall Post office Directories do not help, don’t forget the State Library holds a complete set of microfiches of Telephone Directories.
TWO:In the Sherlock Holmes’ story “The Cardboard Box”, Holmes discusses the uniqueness of the human ear.
Later that year (1893), “The Strand Magazine” ran a two-part series on the ears of the famous!
Perhaps if you have photos of mystery people in side profile- or several- this method might be useful.
The Simon Wiesenthal Nazi hunters Centre used that method to track down War criminals.
Anthea Brown says:
Thanks John, I’d best get cracking on updating the list of tips!
dating melbourne says:
good tips from everyone.Thanks Jenny for adding your strength.
gill jones says:
I just had to jump in here the book Mary Ann: researching women ancestors in Australia is a great resource.and can be found here
A poster in the background for a movie, travelling circus, theatre performance or some other short-lived event can often give a clue for dating the photograph.
Even better is a row of movie billboards – the overlap of showings may even narrow the date to a specific week, or remove the possibility of a re-release. Wikipedia (for release dates), Trove and local newspapers are good sources for tracking down the exhibition period, and maybe a clear reproduction of the poster or advertising copy as confirmation.
Fiona Sullivan says:
Thanks @russelr50 that’s a great tip! We’ll definitely incorporate it into the PDF version the next time we update.
John Ruffels says:
Thanks Fiona and Anthea et al. I forgot to praise beachcomberaustralia and Bob Meade when I was lauding expert “snapsleuths” back there, sorry.
Russelr50 points out posters and signs in the background of mystery photos are useful for dating them.He mentions theatre posters advertising a then current show. Often signs (and I experienced this with a real estate auction sign) gives the day and month for the impending event but not the year. In such cases, a Perpetual Calendar – found in the end leaves of commercially available diaries, (and no doubt on the Net), will tell you what years a certain day and month occurred, thereby narrowing your search.Combined with other clues you are on your way!