How to Date Family Photos with Vintage Fashion Ads in Newspapers

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary shows how the fashion pages in old newspapers can help you date family photographs based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing, especially ladies’ hats.

If you’re having difficulty dating family photographs, you could invest in a clothing reference to help you figure out the time period based on the clothes your ancestors are wearing. Another option: you can browse the thousands of old fashion advertisements and style pages in GenealogyBank’s online historical newspaper archives.

I recommend the latter, as there is no larger archive for vintage fashion ads and style images available online.

vintage photo and illustration of ladies' hats c. 1898

Vintage photo and illustration of ladies’ hats c. 1898

Take, for example, the undated photo on the left, which was located in the William Edward Burghardt Du Bois Collection of the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photograph Collection.

The identity of the African American woman featured in the old picture is unknown, but her hat is consistent with Victorian-era fashion. Not only are there elegant embellishments (feathers), but the bodice and high collar are reminiscent of the Victorian time period. The head positioning (looking to the side) indicates she wanted her hat to be a central theme of the photograph.

I wanted to determine if the estimated date range of 1899-1900 was accurate.

Was the photographer identified? No, but if he/she were, then one could use newspaper advertisements and obituaries to learn the work location, and life and work spans of the artist.

Was the medium (gelatin silver print) used at this time? Yes, and the size of the print is consistent with known examples.

Were there newspaper advertisements that supported this clothing style? Yes, with the closest fashion advertisement match located in the Kansas City Star on 16 January 1898.

This doesn’t indicate that the woman in the photograph resided in Kansas City—just that she wore a fashion trend common in the United States at the end of the 19th century.

Taking all these factors into account, it does give credence to the 1899-1900 estimate, or perhaps a wider range, say 1898-1901, since fashion trends spread from east to west, and often took time to appear in outlying regions.

Search Tip: Keywords to Find Fashion Advertisements

What keywords should you search for to find fashion advertisements in newspapers? To find fashion ads and style pages in GenealogyBank’s newspaper archives, try search keywords such as “Dame Fashion,” “Latest Fashion” or “Millinery.”

illustration of lady's hat, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper 27 May 1892

Illustration of lady’s hat, Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 27 May 1892

Some time periods, such as the Civil War, are more distinctive than others, but early fashion advertisements were not as visual (simple drawings, or merely descriptions).

photograph of Miss Chapman

Photograph of Miss Chapman

Once you have narrowed an old family picture to a specific date range, construct a collage of fashion images from newspapers, and cross-reference with photos that have known dates.

Establish the “earliest” possible date your ancestor’s photograph could have been taken, based on the earliest date when the fashion was first advertised in newspapers.

And don’t forget to browse your ancestor’s hometown newspaper, taking note of fashion editors and which stores were advertising. You may find an exact match to a family photograph.

If you’ve been able to date a family photograph using this method with fashion ads in GenealogyBank, please share it with us in the comments!

 

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Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

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