Not sure how old that antique photograph is? Learn how to use tax stamps to identify you old family photo.
How To Trace Your Family Tree,  Photographs

How to Date Antique Photographs Using Tax Stamps

Date antique photographs by the presence of a tax stamps. Learn more about tax stamps and when they were used to narrow the time frame of that photo.

In your family history research, have you found old unidentified antique photographs in your collection? Are they daguerreotypes? Cartes des visites? Tintypes? 

Finding antique photographs in your family’s photo collection is always a bit of a thrill. But knowing who is in that photograph is another story. You must take time to learn about antique photographs and their distinguishing characteristics before you can start dating antique photographs and figuring out who is in that photo.

Tax stamps are unique to the later years of the Civil War time period. We will explore below how to use their presence to narrow down the date of a photograph to a narrow time period.

Antique photographs can be hard to identify. Learn how the presence of a tax stamp can help.
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The Sun Picture Tax & Dating Antique Photographs

Have you gone through your ancestors’ photographs? Have you found any with a stamp on them? If so, you can narrow down the date the photograph was taken to a narrow point in time.

Known as The Sun Picture Tax, the government charged a tax on photographs from 1 August 1864 to 1 August 1866. The amount of tax per photograph varied based on cost of the photograph. Tax stamps were most commonly  for 1, 2, or 3 cents. Understanding the history of the sun picture tax is a boon to the researcher trying to date antique photographs.

The popular cartes des visites (CDV) were among those photographs required to have tax stamps during this time period.   One cent stamps began being charged for less expensive photos from March 1865 to 1 August 1866. After 1 August 1866, this tax law was repealed.

Civil War Soldier - CDV
Carte de Visite of a Civil War Soldier (Source: Library of Congress)

 

Example of a Tax Stamp
Example of a Tax Stamp (Source: Library of Congress)

But Why Did Such a Tax Exist?

The Sun Picture Tax  was a revenue tax designed to generate money for the government. The Civil War was going on longer than anticipate and the government needed to generate monies as the war continued. Photographers were required to charge the revenue tax on daguerreotypes , ambrotypes and cartes des visites.  Once the customer paid the appropriate tax, the photographer placed a stamp on the photograph, initialed it and dated it. This essentially canceled the stamp and showed the tax paid.

What genealogist would not do the genealogy happy dance to find a specific date on an ancestor’s photograph?

Sometimes, the researcher is not always so fortunate. The tax stamp may be present, but have no date, simply an “X”. Photographers were human and took shortcuts. Simply writing an “X” was simpler and quicker. Over the years, the stamp may have fallen off leaving a darker square where it was.   While this instances do not provide an exact date for the photograph, the existence of the stamp (or the outline) does give the researcher a time period for the photograph.

Photograph Tax Stamp Denominations

Photograph tax stamps were different colors based on their denominations and this helps to further date antique photographs.

  • Green – 3 cent stamps were green.  Photos requiring this stamp cost 25-50 cents.
    Example of a Tax Stamp
    Example of a Tax Stamp (Source: Library of Congress)
  • Orange or Blue – 2 cent stamps were either orange or blue.  Photos requiring this stamp cost 25 cents or less.
    Blue 2 Cent Tax Stamp
    (Source: Library of Congress)
  • Red –  This rare 1 cent stamps were red and only used from March 1865-1 August 1866.  Photos requiring this stamp cost less than 10 cents.
    Example of Red 1 Cent Stamp
    Example of Red 1 Cent Stamp (Source: Library of Congress)
  • Red – The 5 cent stamp was used on photographs selling for 51 cents to 1 dollar.
    Example of 5 Cent Tax Stamp
    5 Cent Stamp on a Daguerreotype (Source: Library of Congress)

Photographers were obviously very much against this taxation. With war-time inflation and the rise in the number of photographers’ studios, an added tax raised the cost of doing business even more. 

I have given you the basics on the tax stamps and identification of your photograph’s time period above.  If you are interested in reading more about the tax stamps during the Civil War you will find the following website very helpful (and interesting!).

Need a resource with strategies to guide you through the steps of identifying their old family photos? Check out my newest e-book: Identify YOUR Ancestor in That Photograph! .

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3 Comments

  • Denise Busenitz

    I have an ancestor photo that is supposed to be a wedding photo from December 16, 1866. However, it has the 2 cent blue stamp. The photo was taken in Springfield Illinois and is labeled P Butler. (assuming this is Preston Butler who photographed Lincoln.) Is that possible that a stamp was used that late after the August 1 repeal?

    • LisaL

      I suppose it’s possible the stamp was used after Aug 1st in some places. It may have taken time for the repeal of the law to reach distant locations. It’s also possible the photograph was taken prior to the wedding. Wedding photographs were not always taken at the time of the actual wedding.

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