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Photographs are time machines—giving us a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in the past. They are important documents in the study of fashion, second only to existing garments. (In many ways, photos are superior to existing garments, because they show us exactly how garments were worn.)
Though fashion drawings may display tightly corseted waists, flat bellies, and enormous bustles, photographs show the reality of fashion, which may reveal that tight corsets were not the norm, that women's bellies bulged, that bustles or hoops were worn smaller than fashion plates would have us believe, and that gloves or hats were not always mandatory. Photos also tell us what a woman's posture was like in a hoopskirt, what was considered a "manly" or "ladylike" pose, how hats were tilted, and many other details that couldn't be accurately discovered in any other way.
Too, photos expose the gulf between what the wealthy wore and what the poor wore. This is especially poignant when it's considered that, just as they do today, people always tried to look their best when sitting for a portrait. This tendency was perhaps even stronger in the nineteenth century, when family photos were frequently displayed in parlors for guests.
Photographs are also collectible and important historical documents in their own right. At nearly every antique store or show, boxes can be found stuffed with sepia images of the past. Some people collect only "rare" images (of children with toys, for example), but a great many people buy old photos simply because they like the look of these people whose relatives seem to have forgotten them. (A running joke among dealers is to label boxes of old photos "Instant Relatives.")
Dating the Images
There are two ways of determining a date for an image: examining the type of photograph and examining the fashions illustrated in the photo. Both methods were used in this book; for maximum accuracy, both should always be used.
I began collecting photographs because of the fashions depicted in them; therefore I often begin my journey into dating an image by studying the clothing shown. For photograph collectors, adding fashions to their repertoire can greatly help them pinpoint the dates of images. This method of dating, if used by itself, does, however, have its limitations.
Though fashion historians know when a style first appeared or first became popular (not necessarily the same), we can't say for certain when a given person might have begun wearing it. Was it a month after it was first touted by the major fashion magazines, or more than a year later? When did the style come to an end? Did everyone suddenly stop wearing the style all at once, or (as is more likely) did its popularity wane gradually?
For the most part, since following fashion was far more socially important in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it can be assumed that a person in a portrait photo was at least trying to keep up with the latest styles. (As author Priscilla Harris Dalrymple asks, "Why else would a lady strike a full-length profile pose in a dress with a bustle?") Still, there were always individuals who clung to out-of-date fashions.
Another problem with this dating method is the way historians determine the coming and going of styles: primarily through fashion magazines. Until about the teens of the twentieth century, fashion magazines offered mostly drawings, which are always idealized. Even fashion magazines that published photographs can be misleading. Just as do contemporary fashion magazines, they showed idealized or extreme fashions rarely seen in everyday life. Trying to date clothes worn by real people in studio photographs by comparing them with fashion illustrations can therefore lead to difficulties.
Nonetheless, by comparing the shape of a hat, a sleeve, or a skirt with what fashion magazines described and pictured, a rough date may be determined: a date when the fashion first became popular and the last date when most people considered it fashionable. This is easiest to do if there are women in the photograph, since, in general, women's fashions changed more rapidly than children's or men's, and tended to be more slavishly followed.
Sometimes old photos carry handwritten notes stating who the pictured person is, along with an apparent date. Such dates have frequently been added long after the photos were taken and are not necessarily accurate. They should never be used alone to date photos or fashions, though it's reasonable to take them into consideration if they fall within the period determined by other methods.
Which brings us to the second method of dating old photos: the photos themselves. Always consider what type of photograph you have (tintype, cabinet card, etc.) when trying to date an image. This is easier than it sounds and can provide some very helpful data (although care must also be taken here, since photographers sometimes used out-of- date methods or old card stock). Whole books have been written about the various types of photographs, and I encourage you to study them—but here are some basics.
Types of Photographs
Daguerreotypes (pronounced dah-gehr-o-types) were introduced in 1839 and were last popular c.1865. Some people still make daguerreotypes today, but generally speaking, their most popular period for portrait photography was c.1852–54, and they died out by the 1860s. Essentially, a daguerreotype is a photo made on a silver-coated copper plate. The first American daguerreotypes were made just six months after the details of the technique were published in 1840. By the mid-1840s, almost every major American city had a daguerreotype studio, and it's estimated that between 1840 and 1860, thirty million daguerreotypes were made in the United States, each client paying between $2 and $5 per pose. (For many people, this was more than a week's pay.)
Daguerreotypes have a shiny, mirror-like metallic surface, and when you tilt a daguerreotype to a certain angle, it looks ghostlike—what seemed dark is now whitish. One way to differentiate between a daguerreotype and other types of photos is to stand the image upright on a table and place a sheet of white paper flat on the table in front of it. If the image suddenly appears to be a negative, it's a daguerreotype. The face of a daguerreotype should never be touched, since this can ruin its special properties.
Some daguerreotypes were delicately hand-colored, but most were not. Daguerreotypes were originally placed under glass and set inside decorative cases for protection; most are still found in their original cases.
Calotypes (sometimes called Talbotypes, after their inventor William Henry Fox Talbot) were the first photographs on paper. Introduced in 1841, they were most popular c.1852–54, and were last made in 1862. Calotypes are fairly rare in America, due to original patent restrictions. Calotypes are often very faded and pale yellow today.
Ambrotypes are images on glass plates; they were first made in 1854 and last made in 1865; their most popular years were c.1857–60. By 1865, ambrotypes were available in nearly all American studios, as a less expensive alternative to daguerreotypes. In fact, by about 1856 ambrotypes were more widely used than daguerreotypes. Unlike daguerreotypes, ambrotypes don't have a wide range of contrast; highlights aren't white, and dark areas don't have much detail. It's more typical for ambrotypes to be hand-tinted, although ambrotypes without tinting were about half the price of daguerreotypes.
Tintypes, which are images on iron plates, are the better known cousins of the ambrotypes. Sometimes also called fer-rotypes, ferrographs (ferro is Latin for "iron"), or melainotypes (melaino is Greek for "black"), tintypes were first seen in 1854, and their popularity essentially ended by 1867; however, from the 1890s to the 1930s tintypes were often taken at carnivals and fairs, and they are still made today in some specialty studios. From roughly 1870 to 1885, tintypes were also made with brown japanned metal, giving them what photographers called a "chocolate" tint. In all cases, however, whites are never really white in tintypes, but typically gray.
Being far less fragile, tintypes soon superseded ambrotypes. Because tintypes were inexpensive (10 to 25 cents for untinted versions), a great many men heading into battle during the Civil War had them made of themselves or their loved ones. They were easily cut into special shapes to fit into brooches, pins, and other jewelry. The tintype was never as popular overseas, where it was known as the "American process."
Tintypes tend to turn dark as they fade, since they have a base of black. They also frequently develop a "halo" effect, in which a circle of gray and black develops around the edges.
Both ambrotypes and tintypes were placed under glass and in cases, like daguerreotypes, but they were also placed in paper sleeves. (Tintypes often have clipped edges, making them easier to slip into albums.) It's more common to see ambrotypes and tintypes without cases than it is to see daguerreotypes without cases. To determine whether an image is a tintype, use a small magnet; a true tintype will be attracted to it.
Albumen prints were made from glass negatives and printed onto paper coated with egg white. (It's estimated that six million eggs were used in 1866 alone for this process.) Introduced in 1850 and last made around 1910, they were most popular from 1860 to 1890. Unlike calotypes, albumen prints have a semigloss surface. Albumen prints include the subcategories of cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and stereo cards. They were originally placed in paper sleeves and glued to cardboard mounts.
Cartes de visite (French for "visiting cards"; pronounced cart-duh–viz–eet, and popularly known as CDVs), first appeared in 1854. These diminutive photos got their name from their calling card-sized mounts. They are albumen prints measuring about 2½ x 3½", mounted onto cardboards measuring approximately 2½ x 4"; they were most popular c.1859–66, and were not made after the 1910s.
CDVs didn't become popular in America until c.1858. By 1860, more of them were produced than any other type of photo. Usually, CDVs were placed in paper sleeves or inside photo albums. By the 1870s, CDVs were mass-produced for public consumption, with images of actresses and other famous people. The CDV was called "the poor man's portrait," and was even used for criminals' mug shots.
From c.1858 to 1869, CDVs were glued to thin cardboard rectangles whose thickness was about .01–.02". From c.1861 to 1869, borders of one or two lines were often used on the boards. In c.1869 and 1870, the card's thickness was generally .020". After about 1863, the images, though not the cards they were mounted on, might be oval- shaped. (Oval frames with tassels can be dated to c.1864–67.) After c.1871, the card's corners were rounded. By 1873, the card was occasionally colored. After about 1875, its edges might be beveled. By 1880, the card was at its heaviest, and deep shades of reddish brown, hunter green, or maroon were often used; the back often had an elaborate ad for the photographer. By the 1890s, the edges might be scalloped.
Cabinet cards are albumen prints measuring about 4 x 5½", glued to cardboard mounts usually measuring about 4½ x 6½". These were introduced in 1863, were adopted by American studios by 1866, and were popular from around 1870 to 1900. They were last made in the 1920s. By World War I, these images were produced on gelatin-silver paper rather than albumen paper.
The first cabinet card backings were light cardboard in soft shades, generally gray and brown. By 1880, the images were glued onto many colors of cardboard, and below the image the photographer's imprint was often placed. From around 1885 to 1892, the card might have beveled edges, sometimes trimmed with gold. In the 1880s, deep wine- colored cardboard was popular, while during the 1890s, notched edges and fancy photographer ads on the back were common. From c.1866 to 1880, the cardboard often featured red or gold rules in single or double lines; c.1884–85, wide gold borders were popular. From about 1880 to 1890, scalloped borders were frequently used; c. 1889–96, single-line rules with rounded corners were fashionable; c.1866–80, red or gold rules in single or double lines are often found. After 1900, cabinet cards generally had much more cardboard surrounding the photo, and could be quite large.
Stereo cards were used with stereoscopes—hand-held viewing glasses that gave an illusion of depth. Introduced in America in 1854 and, for the most part, not produced after 1925, they were widely popular from around 1858 to 1905. Alternative names for stereo cards include stereographs, stereoviews, stereoscopic views, and stereotypes.
These images were commercially produced for entertainment value, not for family portraits. Photographer O. Henry Mace called stereo cards "Victorian television." Images of places are most often found, but miniature "stories" that included people were also popular. Very early stereo cards were made on glass or metal, but usually stereo cards are found glued to cardboard, measuring about 3 x 7". Before the 1890s, they were colored by hand; afterwards, they were printed in color. If a card has squared corners and measures about 3½ x 7", it dates from before 1869. By 1873 the card was enlarged to 7 x 4–4½", a size that stayed popular until c.1885. As with CDVs and cabinet cards, the first cardboard mounts were light in weight. The cardboard was usually a shade of white, or sometimes gray. In the 1860s, the cardboard got heavier and the corners were rounded. In the 1870s and 1880s, mounts could be a variety of colors, even bright orange or yellow; later they reverted to their original white or gray. Because they were handled a great deal, they tend to be in poorer condition than many other types of albumen prints.
Gelatin prints were images on gelatin-coated paper. The gelatin print was first produced in 1871 and was the form of photography that caught on with amateur photographers—including George Eastman, creator of the Kodak company. This type of photo is usually silvered to some extent (it looks silvery when held at an angle). A modernized version of gelatin prints is still in use today.
This list represents the common types of photos found in the United States, but it is by no means complete. Many other sorts of old photographs can be found—you may even find some on odd materials such as fabric or leather.
But whatever type of photograph you find, I encourage you to preserve and study it—you never know how much history you may discover!
Fashion is often called frivolous—or at best artistic—and while it can sometimes be both, the clothes we wear are also a mighty stack of evidence about who we are, both as individuals and as a society
One article of clothing that illustrates this perfectly is the woman's hat. In the early 1800s, American women wore bonnets that hid the face like blinders. After the 1850s, however, women wore small, jaunty hats that highlighted their faces. Women were emerging from their cocoons—even rollicking to the polka and brazenly dancing the waltz (which once shocked good citizens because of its "immodesty").
During the Civil War, women's clothing often made silent political statements, incorporating military-style bands, stripes, stars, and epaulets. Women's fashions also reflected increasing personal liberty; hoops replaced many layers of starched petticoats, making clothes considerably lighter. Women became more active; sports were now considered acceptable for ladies.
Backward strides were taken in the late 1870s and early 80s, with the popularity of the uncomfortable and restraining "mermaid" style of dress, which clung to the figure and ended in a long train. During this period, Victorian women often complained that their skirts were so snug, they had to give up their favorite sports.
Excerpted from Victorian Fashion in America by Kristina Harris. Copyright © 2002 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 7, 2013
Posted October 12, 2002
This book is yet another example of what passes for scholarship in the field of Costume Studies. Not only is this book dramatically skewed towards the dress of women during the 1890's-1900 era (indeed half of the book is devoted to this sex and time period) it also contains numerous mistakes. The wrong dates are often assigned to pictures. For example, pg 6 # 17 is not an example of dress from 1863-64, it is a copy of a daguerreotype taken c. 1850. Page 10 # 30 is not from 1867-1868, rather, it is c. 1875. Page 11 number 31 is not from 1867-1868, it dates to c 1882.I could go on but I don't want to embarass the author. In all, there are at least 20 blatent mistakes. For a book whose sole purpose seems to be dating photos ( and providing inadequate descriptions of clothes) it fails miserably. Buy this book to look at the photos but don't read read the text. It's sad that books like this are able to be published.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 7, 2002
I'm a big fan of Dover fashion books, and have most of this author's books, too, and this is one of my favs. Of all the books of photographs published and geared toward fashion, this is the best. It's not just all wealthy people, and not all middle class or poorer people, either. There is a nice mix. The information on dating your own photos is very handy and informative, too. And, as always, the author does a nice job of giving a brief but interesting social history of fashion. I definately recommend this book; add it to your collection!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.