Photographic Interpretation

Figure 1.--Many old photographs are difficult to assess. Can you be certain about the gender of this child. Note the pose to help steady the child and the support at his back.

The social historian can find photographs quite useful in developing a better understanding of everyday life in previous eras. Unfortunately many old photographs do not have any deails about who the people pictured are, when, and where they were photographed, and other details. Sometimes information can be easily induced. Some images, however, are very difficult to assess. As a result some guidelines are needed to help assess images.

Difficult Images

Mothers throughout the 19th Century outfitted their sons dresses, in many cases with long ringlet curls. These images are very difficult to assess as one does not know if many of the children are girls or boys. We would be interested in any insights readers might have.


While there is no foolproof way of dating old photographs or determining gender, there are some indicators that can help assess many images with a fair degree of accuracy. I have pulled together some thoughts on this. I would be very interested in thoughts you might have or comments on my guideline. Here also are some beginning thoughts on how to data old images. Please forward any insights or thoughts you might have on chronological dating. Here are some preliminary thoughts on the difficult task of determining the gender of the younger children in old photographs.


We have created a shoirt quiz for readers. You might want to test your photo interpretation skills out on one of the HBC clothing quizzes. Good luck and let us know if you have an image to add to the quiz.

Economic Disaparities

Economic disparities have to be kept in mind when assessing the photohraphic record. The disparity between the clothes and customs of relatively well-to-do families as compared with those of poorer families was very large from the 1880s through the 1920s. Children of well-to-do families were more likely to have their pictures taken at photographic studios because they could more easily afford to have the portraits taken. Less affluent families could not as easily afford such portraits, although by the 1890s the cost of a portrait had fallen considerably. No doubt this economic dispariy has biased the photographic record during those eras. HBC can, of course, only present what has been preserved in the record, but it is important bear the economic disparity in mind when assessing these portraits. The same economic disparity also should be born in mind whn assessng the images and fashion information in magazines such as The Delineator and Harper's Bazaar from the 1880s to the 1920s.


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Created: March 23, 1999
Last updated: 5:31 PM 10/25/2004