Photographs in family history

Tim Owston explains why photographs are an invaluable source for any family historian.
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Written records of family history often span multiple generations, many centuries and even different continents. Photography, on the other, is pretty much in its infancy in the context of genealogy.

The first photographs appeared around the 1820s but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the popularity of this image making technique really took off.

Here are a few tips to help you identify the different types of photograph and assist you in plotting a timeline of when the image was created.

Where To Find Photographs

1  Relatives – Borrow and copy
2  Archives
– Private
– Commercial
– Art galleries
– Museums
– Newspapers
– Regiments
– Historical societies
3  Social events
– Church/Chapel outings
– Club records


Photographs can be dated, even studio photographs, by their type and by the total contents of the picture. Note should be taken of the clothes, the topographical scenery and foreground items. Additionally it might be posible to date the photographer and studio.

Types Of Photographs

Daguerotypes 1839-1857 – Small with a mirror look.

Abrotype 1852-1863  -About 2.75″ by 3.25″ usually and could be hand tinted for colour.

Calotypes 1841-1938 – Popular system used in fairgrounds, cased and with a grey colour.

Cartes-de-visite 1859-1914 – The cheapest and most popular method so far. Card backings with name of photographer and town, about 2.5″ by 4″.

Cabinet Cards 1866-1914

Larger than Cartes-de-Visite about 4.25″ by 6.5″.

Glass Negatives 1878 – Used by amateur photographers, fragile and should be reproduced as soon as possible.

Flexible film

  • 1889 Nitro-cellulose base which decays.
  • 1900 Kodak and box brownies introduced for better off.
  • 1930s Modern film invented.
  • 1940’s Colour – (re-photograph in black and white).

Further Reading

  • FAMILY HISTORY IN FOCUS, ed. by Don Steel and Lawrence Taylor, Lutterworth Press, 1984. (In lending Library)
  • PHOTOGRAPHS AND LOCAL HISTORY, George Oliver, Batsford, 1989.
  • DATING OLD PHOTOGRAPHS, Robert Pols, Federation of Family History Societies.

Written by Tim Owston.

Last modified: June 10, 2021

Written by 11:38 am History & Genealogy