Genealogy Research

How to Identify 5 Types of Old Photographs

Photographs are  among some of the most treasured family heirlooms. Our children today grow up being photographed almost daily. Point a camera at a young child and they automatically smile. But this hasn’t always been the case.

Having one’s photograph taken was an occasion that needed to be planned and perhaps saved for. Even candid photographs needed some forethought. Those photographs that have been passed down through the family are special.

Unfortunately, like us today, our ancestors did not always label their photographs.  At least mine did not.

What do you as the family historian do? What are the first steps you can take to identify the people in the photographs? You first need to determine what type of photograph you are looking at. The type of photograph will give you a time frame for your photograph.

5 Types of Photographs

 1. Daguerreotype (1840’s – early 1860)

Daguerreotypes were popular from the 1840’s -1860’s. They are typically small with the most common size being 2 3/4 x 3 1/2 inches and housed in a case.  Developed by  Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre, the daguerreotype involved exposing a silver plated sheet of copper to a chemical fumes. Since the daguerreotype is on polished silver, it is reflective like a mirror.  The image appears to almost “float”.  Daguerreotypes are very fragile.  They should be stored away from direct light and away from extreme temperatures. (In other words, keep them out of your attic!)

You can find more information about daguerreotypes at The Daguerreian Society.

Example of Daguerreotype
Example of Daguerreotype (Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

 2. Ambrotypes (1855-1865)

Ambrotypes are in small hinged cases like the daguerreotypes, but do not have that reflective, mirror-like quality. Ambrotypes are produced by the wet collodion plating or an emulsions process and the image is created on the glass.  These, too, were fragile and were placed in small hinged cases. Like the daguerreotype, keep them out of direct sunlight and away from extreme temperatures.

Learn more about Ambrotypes at the


Example of Ambrotype
Example of Ambrotype (Source: Library of Congress)


3. Tintypes (1856-1890’s)

Tintypes were popular for more than 30 years. Instead of glass, the image was on an iron plate.  Early tintypes were in small, hinged cases like the daguerreotypes and the ambrotypes. However, the cases were soon replaced by paper sleeves.  Often today, tintypes are found in one’s collection without the sleeves.

In the 1890’s the tintypes were popular in carnivals. These images often show our ancestors in more relaxed poses.

Because the tintype was popular for so many years, the researcher needs to study the fashions worn by the tintype subjects to narrow the time frame for the photograph.

Find more information about tintypes at

Example of a Tintype
Example of a Tintype (from personal collection of Lisa Lisson)

4. Cartes des Visites  (Introduced in 1859)

These small albumen printed photographs were popular in the 1860’s-1870’s.  Measuring 2 1/2″ by 4″, the photographs were mounted on a thick paper and used much as the calling card was used in the 1850’s.  The Civil War saw a rise in the carte de visite’s popularity as soldiers and families exchanged photographs.

Read more about Cartes des Visites  (CDV) at The American Museum of Photography’s website.

Carte de Visite Example
Example of a Carte de Visite (from the personal collection of Lisa Lisson.)

5. Cabinet Cards (1860-1890’s)

Cabinet cards and cartes des visites (CDV) are often confused. Like the CDV, the cabinet card was also an albumen print on thin paper and mounted on thicker paper. The primary difference is the cabinet card is larger and may have a photographer’s logo on the reverse side. The cabinet card reached its peak popularity in the 1880’s.

Because the cabinet card was used for many years, studying the types and colors of the papers used are essential to determining the age.

For more on dating cabinet cards and examples of cabinet cards, see this post on the National Media Museum’s blog.

Example of a Cabinet Card
Example of a Cabinet Card (from the private collection of Lisa Lisson).

The Brownie Camera – Photographs for the Masses

In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie camera.  Marketed toward children, this was the first camera for the general public.  Taking photographs was now the cheapest it had ever been and did not require the owner to have a dark room or studio.

For more about the Brownie camera see The Brownie Camera Page.

For More Resources on Identifying Older Photographs

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