“Dating” and “Placing” Our Family Photographs

Many of us have old family photographs. Besides wanting to know who everyone is, we also want to know when and where the photos were taken. Often we may think we don’t have a clue as to the date and place, but if we ask ourselves a few questions – and look at the photos with greater scrutiny – we usually find we know much more than we realize.

Take this photograph for instance. It shows a family gathering of my great-great grandparents, Charles and Mary (Burgin) Comstock (1840-1917 and 1840-1901 respectively), their children, sons-in-law, and two grandchildren. Nowhere on this photo is a date written, or a place mentioned. I did have the advantage, though, of knowing who each person was.

“Dating” this photo

Mary (Burgin) Comstock (elderly lady in the wheelchair) died in March 1901. So, the photo was taken before that date. As it is an outdoor photo and appears to be taken in summertime, this couldn’t have been taken any later than September 1900.

The young couple with the baby daughter on the right are the elderly couple’s daughter, Julia (Comstock) Maxwell, her husband William Maxwell, and their daughter, Louise Maxwell (later Hoskins, my grandmother). Louise was born in June 1896. So, the photo was certainly taken between 1896 and no later than about September 1900. As Louise appears to be between two and three years of age, the range of years can be tightened to probably 1898 or 1899.

William Maxwell (on right) appears to have a Black-Eyed Susan on his lapel. This flower grows typically from mid-summer through fall. So, it’s reasonable to suppose that this photo would not have been taken much before June 21 nor much later than September 15. Considering all these factors the date range can probably be tightened to be from about mid-June 1898 or 1899 to about September 1898 or 1899.

Now, take another look at the toddler, Louise. As she was born in June 1896, and we believe this photo to have been taken in the summer or early autumn of either 1898 or 1899, does she look to be about two years old or three years old? For me, although she could be either age, I think it more likely she was three years old. So, my best judgment – in light of all these considerations – is that that this photograph was taken between June and September 1899.

“Placing” this photo

Mary (Burgin) Comstock died in March 1901 in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Mary (Burgin) Comstock, being an invalid, the photo is unlikely to have been taken anywhere but at the Comstock home.

Charles and Mary Comstock resided in Norwalk in the 1890s.

In summary, I think it can be stated with some degree of confidence that this photo was taken between June and September 1899 in Norwalk, Connecticut.

Try taking similar close looks at some of your un-dated and un-placed family photos and I think you may find you “know” more about them than you thought!

About Tony Hoskins

Anthony Hoskins has for the past 12 years managed the Sonoma County History and Genealogy Library, also serving as Sonoma County Archivist and as a Sonoma County Historical Records Commissioner. He holds a B.A in history from the University of Iowa and an M.A. from the University of Chicago. Tony has served on the boards of the Sonoma County Historical Society, the Sonoma County Genealogical Society, and the Sonoma County Museum. Previously, he was for eleven years the Genealogical Services Librarian at Chicago’s Newberry Library where he taught genealogical research for ten years and lectured widely throughout the Midwest. Contributor of the genealogical charting section in the Chicago Manual of Style (15th edition, 2003), he has also written a book and numerous articles published in American and British genealogical journals. He is best known for his “Mary Boleyn’s Carey Children: offspring of King Henry VIII?” (London, 1997).
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2 Responses to “Dating” and “Placing” Our Family Photographs

  1. Sue McIsaac says:

    Love these posts! Thank you so much. Learn so much from them.

  2. Susan Trumbull says:

    Very helpful analysis….loved the black eyed Susan observation (now genealogists must also be botonists!) When one doesn’t know all the names, even knowing one name and something of clothing styles etc. can help with the aid of the Census. The wheelchair was a corker….people didn’t move far from one floor when confined to a wheelchair – like both my great grandmothers with broken hips! Thank You! Susan

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