black and white old photo of parents and 3 young girls
Old Family Photos

Easily Date a Family Photograph By Analyzing Hairstyles

Learn how hairstyles through the 18th and 19th centuries help family history enthusiasts easily date old family photographs.

Remember your old school pictures? Did you pick out a special outfit to wear that day? Did you get a haircut and perhaps even a new hairstyle for your school picture?

Like me, did you obsess over whether your school pic would be taken before or after gym class?!

Check out that hair do—->

School picture of young 12 year old girls with blue eyes and short brown hair
Lisa’s School Picture – ~Age 12

School pictures aside, when our ancestors had their photograph taken, it was an occasion! Hair was done. Clothes were donned. They wanted to look their best.

This is a good thing for genealogy researchers and family historians with unidentified family photographs is their collections. Being familiar with men and women’s hairstyles of the 1800’s and 1900’s will help researchers estimate the date a photograph was taken.

Why is that important?

Knowing the approximate date a photograph was taken is the first step in identifying unknown family photographs.

The questions before you today:

  • Have you thought about your female ancestors’ hairstyles?
  • Have you considered how your female ancestor’s hairstyle could date her photograph?  

It is no different from how we look back at our own photographs and know when it was taken by how we wore our hair.

Let’s look at some hair!

Black and white photo of young girl in white dress from late 1910's. Hair pulled up on sides with large bow in back
Esther Richardson ~ 1812 (Source: Private Collection of Lisa Lisson)

This is a photograph of my great grandmother when she was ~16 in 1912.  Notice the center  part and the braids on the side above her ears.  (Is anyone else thinking Princess Lea from Star Wars?)

Also, note the large bow that looks to span the whole width of her head.  This was a typical look for a young woman in the 1900’s and 1910’s.  The bow disappears in later photographs of Esther.

Group of 2 women and one man from late 1910's with fancy dresses and man wearing suit and bow tie. Typical hairstyles of the period to date old family photos
Photo from the late 1910’s. (Source: Private Collection of Lisa Lisson)

The photograph above shows two different types of hairstyles from the 1910’s.  Based on their clothing, these two women were conscious of their style including their hair. The full “loose” bun up on top of the head on the women on the left was typical of the 1910’s.

Black and white photo of young woman from mid-1890's with center part and curled bangs. Dark top with large bow
Source: Private collection of Cynthia Welcher

The photograph above of Mary Elizabeth Scott (Halifax County, VA) was taken in the early – mid-1890’s.  Notice the center part with the bangs.  Her hair is pulled into a bun in the back.

1940's black and white photo of young woman on beach wearing bathing suit with typical 1940's hairstyle
Source: Private Collection of Lisa Lisson

Here is a more “modern” photograph taken of Elma Talbott Solomon in the early 1940’s.  Notice her hair is pulled back on top and kept longer on the sides and back. She was a favorite aunt of mine and quite stylish!

The photograph above is from the Library of Congress photo collection and depicts a woman from the Civil War era. She wears a typical hairstyle of the day with a middle part and the hair styled over the ears.

Where To Find Examples of 1800’s & 1900’s Hairstyles

You have photographs of male and female ancestors in your collection but are having trouble identifying the era of time for the photograph.  You know you should analyze the hairstyle to narrow down the time period the photo was taken.

But…..where does a genealogy researcher learn about hairstyles of the 1800’s and the 1900’s

A number of resources exist for researchers to find examples of hairstyles for men and women from various time periods.

  • Godey’s Lady’s Book  – Published from 1830 – 1878, Godey’s Lady’s Book is known for its hand tinted fashion plates in each issue.
  • Library of Congress Photo Collection  – Search for women and filter for the particular year(s) you are interested in.
  • Google Images  –   Search for women and the particular year you are interested in.
  • Harper’s Bazaar [Bazar] – Founded in 1867, Harper’s Bazaar is still in production today. Find women’s fashions including hairstyles.
Cover of 1871 Harper's Bazar Magazine with black and white drawing of 5 women in fashionable dresses and hairstyles examples to date old family photos
Harper’s Bazar from January 1871 (Source: Google Books)

Do not hesitate to search the web for more examples of hairstyles throughout history.

Go Pull Out Your Photographs

Go pull out your old family photographs, and look at them with a new eye. What type of hairstyles do you find?

Spend an afternoon studying your ancestors’ hairstyles!

Learn More About Photo Identification in These Posts:

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