Dating Images of 19th Century Children

Figure 1.--

Note: The authors would be very interested in any suggestions for time-line indicators to help date old imags.

HBC has compiled some indicators that I think will prove helpful in dating old photographs. This is, however, just some prelimimary thoughts on the matter. I'd be very interested in your reaction to my thoughts and any additional thoughts that you can suggest. This page deals with dating images in general, not only photographs, but also drawings and paintings. We have stressed dating photographs because in many cases drawing and apintings can be dated. Drawing often appeared in periodcal magazines or other dated publications. Often the date a painter executed one of his works are known. Large numbers of photographs, unfortunately are undated. We note several different ways in which the dates of these photographs can be estimated. These results are of course not definitive, but can be useful in the absence of an actual date. The indicators that we have noted relate to both photography, activity, and fashion. The primary indicators that we suggest are photographic technology, portrait styles, photographic props, activity depicted, clothing styles, and hair styles.


The following guidelines can be used to determine the approximate date of old photographs with a fair degree of accuracy. The authors stress, however, that no foolproof key to interpreting these photographs. Several problems exist in daing old photographs:
Old styles may be worn: Styles and the fashionable tastes of mothers vary widely and there simply is no way of telling with absolute certainty if a specific style was worn when it was fashionable. It probably was, but there are also images when this was not the case. There were in the 19th Century no definitive rules on how to dress older boys as is the case with the modern boys. Many mothers simply did as they wished and the boys did not question their parents as modern children do. Especially boys raised at home could be dressed in what ever outfits pleased his mother. Many mothers used hand me downs. Thus clothes bought for one child might be won several years later for another child.
Countries differ: Not all fashion trends occurred simultaneously in different countries. Thus unless the country involved is known, dating is more difficult. I do not fully understand these differences. Most of the images on HBC are British or American and to a lesser extent French. This there is not yet a significant sampling of German, Italian, and other European images that would permit any valid conclusions on trends in these countries.


Photographhy for most of the 19th Century was static, usually taken in a studio by a professional photographer. Outdoor photos did not become common until the late 1890s and especially appearance of the Kodak Brownie in 1900. The photography of the 19th century offers many valuable clues concerning the date of an image. These indicators include the type of image, the pose, the style of print, and who took the photograph. Like the fashion indicators, these are not precise indicators, but can be very useful, especially in combination with other indicators such as clothing and hair fashions. Here we are just beginning to collect information and would be very interested in reader comments.


The furniture used in studio portaits provides a range of clues helpful in dating studio portraits. Several types of furniture were especially popular. We note early portraits were commonly done wih a smallround fabric colored cloth. We commonly see this wiyh Dags and anbros (1840s-50s) as well as early CDVs (1860s). A good example is an unidentified Scottish boy. We also notice a lot of mostly cabinet cards wih apolstered chairs tht had fringe nanging dowm from the arms (1870s-80s). We also see some examples in the early-90s. A good example is Tommy Purcell in 1892. Then we begin go see whicker furniture in the late 1890s. At the turn-of-the 20h century we see whote whicker furnoture. We note ice cream chairs (1890s and 1900s). A good example is an American boy, Carl Lovett, in 1893.

Figure 2.--While dolls are usually a good indicator the child is a girl, boys with older sisters are an exception.

Props and Toys

The props held by a child are often clues as to gender. I stress that there are no sure fire rules here. Props are good indicators, but are not surefire indicators.
Balls: Balls of various types often suggest boys. Girls may be pictured with balls, but girls were not incouraged in the 19th Century to engage in strenous outdoor play.
Dolls: A child holding a doll is probably a girl. There are, however, photographs of boys playing with dolls. Even so, dolls are strong indicators that the child is a girl. One major exception to the doll indicator is boys with older sisters. Not only was he likely to wear his older sisters hand-me-downs, but he was more likely to be interested in doing the things like playing dolls that his older sister does. And he was less likely to be upser about wearing dresses.
Farm implements: Children holding farm implenments.
Guns: Guns, toy or real, and other weapons are strong evidence the child is a boy.
Hoops: I believe that both boy and girl played with hoops. It is probably somewhat more ikely to be a boy, but their use by both boys and girls mean that a hoop is not a good indicator.
Pets: All children like animals. Animal s are thus often held by boys and girls. Girls might be more likely to hold a cat and boys more likely to hold a dog.
Sporting equipment: Sports were a relatively new concept, but modern sports had begun to take shape in Europe by the early 19th Century. Sports equipment is an even stronger indicator that the child is a boy. It was not consifered lady-like for girls to play sports. One of the few exceptions here would be tennis.
Trikes and bikes: The children pictures with tricycles I believe are most likely to be boys. I can not yet substantiate this, but believe it is a good rule of thumb.
Whips: A whip is a common prop in late 19th Century images. I think they were buggy whips associated with driving horses and cairrages. The boys probably liked theidea of driving cairages like modern boys want to drive cars. Thus I think a whip strongly suggests a boy. A riding crop, however, is more ambiguous and could be either a boy or girl.

Figure 3.--This child wears a white kilt and jacket. The hair and frlly details suggest a girl. The kilt itself suggests it may be a boy. Note that this child does not wear a blouse with a lace collar, but rather an elaborate lace top is sewn on the jacket.


Photographhy for most of the 19th Century was static, usually taken in a studio. Paintings and drawings, however, could depict action. Children running about, rough housing with each other or being restrained by adults are likely boys. Children sitting quietly chatting with each other are probably girls.

Clothing Styles

Sometimes information is available identifying the children depicted in drawings, paintings, and photographs or in many instances the precise date a photograph was taken. Such information is extremely helpful in establishing actual fashions and trends. More often, however, images are available without any accompanying information. The type, quality, and setting of photographs often provide helpful information. The clothing and hair styles worn by the boys can also provide useful information in dating old images. Given the vageries of fashion, the results are not infalable, but they can often help to set guidelines. One problem is that boys in the 19th Century, in some cases fairly old boys, wore dresses, skirts, kilts, and long curls. Thus it is often very difficult to determine the gender of children with any certainty. It hard to establish what younger boys wore simply because it is difficult to distinguish them from the girls. The authors have also compiled some gender identification guidelines.

Hair Styles

Short hair on younger children is an indicator suggesting a period before the 1880s. This is not to say that boys at mid-century did not have long curls. There are accounts of mothers keeping their sons in long curls throughout the Century. It was particularly cimmon, however, in the 1880s spurred on by the Fauntleroy craze. Ringlet curls in particular on boys are an indicator of a period from 1885-1900. Short hair was very common for boys in the early and mid-19th Century. Even younger boys often had short hair in the early and mid 19th Century. While short hair is a good indicator, it is not absolute proof. Mothers even in the early 19th Century might choose long hair and curls for their sons, in some cases even on boys as old as 11 or 12 years. Likewise while long hair was prised on girls, some girls wore their hair short.

Hair styles changed in the late 19th Century. Long hairs, even ringlet curls, for boys became highly fasionable. Boys up to 8 years might commonly wear long ringlet curls, an even older boys sometimes wore them. It is likely that a child with very short hair cut away from the ears is probably a boy. There is, however, no certainty here. Many girls also had short hair, especially in the late 19th Century. One important point. Boys sometimes had some quite severe short hair cut, but this would be very rare (but not unknown) on girls. Thus particularly short hair cuts are a strong indication the child is a boy.

One useful indicator may be the part. Hair styles of course changed over time. I'm not sure, however, just what those changes were and over what time period. It is a subject I hope to pursue in detail. If HBC readers have infornation on this or know of any helpful web sites, please advise the web master.

Hair Bows

Generally American and British children wearing hair bows are girls. There are some, but very few exceptions to this. Children on the continent, especially late 19th century France, wearing dresses and hair bows could be boys. Even boys as old as 10 years in France might wear long hair tied back with a hair bow. Curls were less common for boys in France than in America. Children with really large hair bows are probably girls, but as always one has to consider other clues. Hair bows can be useful time line indicators. In American it almost certainly means a 19th century image, probably before the 1890s. In France it probably means a time period before the 1880s for older boys, but could extend into the 20th Century for younger boys.

Figure 4.--.

Dress Styles

Dresses for little boys were often identical to those their sisters wore, especially before the 1870s. Boys beyond the todler years kept in dresses, especially by the 1870s were often outfitted in plainer dresses with fewer frills and lace--although this was not always the case. By the 1890s dressed especially styled and marketed for boys appeared. These dresses were generally plainer than those for girls and often featured a belt. Some mothers liked the look of frilly dresses whether for their daughters or sons. So girlishly styled dresses with lace and frills can not be assumed to be from an earlier period, even in the 1890s and early 1900s. Many of the stylistic features of womens' dresses caried over into children's dresses so a websites devoted to women's dresses should be consulted to help date images of boys in dresses.


One frequent feature was front buttons. By the mid 19th Century the gender convention for wearing buttons was becoming well established. In the early part of the Century there were no specialized boy dresses. By the late 19th Century, however, specialized boy dresses appeard. Thus if the buttons are observable, they could provide helpful information on dating photographs. There are many avid button collectors and different styles of buttons can be dated. Unfortunately few old photographs are sufficently clear to observe more than stylistic arrangement. The actual buttons themselves are rarely sufficently detailed to observe.


Low necklines would seem to indicate a child is a girl. It certainly has a girlish look to the modern person. One is tempted to think that a child in a dress with a low neckline is probably a girl. This would be a mistake. Actually I do not believe that necklines are good indicators as they usually reflect the fashion of the day rather than the gender of the child. Necklines were simply a function of the popular fashion of the day. The neckline is better indicator of the date than the gender. If the fashion was low necklines than the dresses of both boys and girls had low necklines. Thus the neckline can be extremely helpful in dating old images.

The neckline is not really of great assistance in dating most old photographs. Neck lines by the 1870s were beginning to be quite high. This means that most old photographs were taken when necklines were high. The lower necklines are probably more useful in dating unidentified paintings. Low necklines were commonly worn in the early and mid 19th Century. Notably there were no specialized boy dresses during this period in which low necklines were popular for small children. Little boys gerally wore the same styles their sisters wore. In the 1860s necklines began to raise--but for both boys and girls. It was not until the 1870s that low necklines for children disappeard entirely.

Hemline and pantalettes

Another helpful indicator is hem length. I have just begun to assess the hem length in dating old photographs. Here the contemporary fashion in women's dresses can be misleading. While in the early 19th Century children's dresses were just as long as women's dresses. Children's dresses with shorter hems began to appear in the 1820s and were common by the 1830s. During this early period they were worn with lacey pantalettes as it was considered inapropriate at the time for even young children to have bare legs. After mid-Century, short dresses above the knee, often worn with ankle socks and strap shoes appeared in England and Europe. I'm less certain about America. Beginning in the 1870s children's dresses began to become longer again. At the same time pantalettes began to become less fashionable. Stylistic differences between coutries makes it important to identify the country in which the photograph was taken.


A boy wearing an actual dress could often be identified if the dress had a tunic-style belt. (See "Tunics" below.) By the late 19th Century specifically styled dresses appeared. Many but not all of these dresses were plainer with less lace and ruffles than the dresses specifically for girls. One of the stylistic features of these boy dresses was a belt. So even if the child in an old photograph has long curls, and a nice frock, you can usually identify the child with a belt as a boy.



Boys Clothing Styles


Boys were often dressed in tunics in the early 19th century. The tunic was a popular choice for many mothers, which like kilts and kilt suits, eased the transition from dresses to trousers for the young boy--at least in his mother's eyes. Tunics were similar to dresses, but were much simpler--usually without elaborate lace and ruffle trim. Tunics were almost always made from solid colored material. They also always had belts of some kind. Tunics were popular for boys throughout the 19th Century. Even school-age boys wore tunics in the early 19th Century in an era when public education was just beginning to develop. Younger boys continued wearing tunics until, after the turn of the century. Through the 1870s, younger boys commonly wore tunics with pantalettes--but older boys always wore knickers. This was a major difference as boys did not wear knickers (in the American sence) when wearing dresses.


One popular style for boys in late 19th Century America was the kilt suit. These contrasted with dresses because they were two piece garments. Also the materials were often muted colors. These were much more commonly worn by boys than girls and were most popular in America for some strange reason. They were most common from the 1870s through the turn of the Century.

Sailor suits

Little Lord Fauntleroy suits

Mrs Benett's book Little Lord Fauntleroy was published in 1885. While velvet suits with lace collars were worn by boys before 1885, most available photographic images probably are images from the late 1880s, 1890s, and early 1900s. Lace collars were commom until the turn of the century after which ruffled collars become increasingly important.

Buster Brown suits

The Buster Brown suit was based on the characteric red suit worn by the main character in a cartoon that first appeared in 1902. Presumably the artist picked up on a style being worn by boys at the time. Its appearance in the popular comic strip, however, must have added to its popularity. Most photographs of boys in Buster Brown suits were probably taken in the 1900s, 1910s, and to a lesser extent the early 1920s.

Boys suits

The older boy's coat is not very stylish. Much better styles clothes were worn by boys in the 80s & 90s.


As for striped socks, that is a subject I haven't pursued yet, but belive that they had become much less fashionable (especially for dress occasions) by the mid-1880s and 90

Stylistic Details


Collars for all the children are small. Small collars were common in the 1860s and early 1870s, but quite large collars for boys and girls were introduced in the late 1870s and remained popular until well after the turn of the century.


Belts began appearing on dresses in the 1880s and were a prominent stylistic feature on dresses by the 1890s. This was especially true on the dresses made specifically for boys. Thus belts on dresses and tunics probably an image taken in the 1880s, 1890s, or early 1900s. Incidetally the converse can not be taken as a good indicator. This is because many mothers selected the frillier styles for their sons out of fashion preferences. In addition a boy might well wear hand me down girls dresses without belts if he had older sisters-- thus making dating such information more difficult.


Plaid is a particularly good indicator. Especially after Queen Vctoria popularized Scotland and the kilt, plaid became a popular material for children's clothes. It was particularly popular for boys. Because of the material was similar to some material used in Scottish kilts, many parents considered it appropriate for boys not yet old eough for a kilt. By the 1870s, plaid had become less popular for girls and children in plaid dresses were even more likely to be boys.




Srriped socks

White stockings

Boys Clothes

The modern viewer is acustomed to seeing girls wearing boys clothes. Indeed modern boys and girls are often indistinguishble dressed in T shirts, j swearshirts, jeans, and sneakers. Modern boys would of course not consider wearing anything perceived as girlish. This was not always the case. As we have seen, in the 19th and early 20th Century many boys were outfitted in dresses, but girls would never have thouht about wearing pants or knickers. Thus a child with long, girlish-looking ringlets if wearing knickers or kneepabnts is almost surely a boy.

Colors (in paintings)

Colors are helpful indicators and can be particularly useful with paintings which display colors . Black and white photography does show white outfits and some indication of color can be assessed based on the shades of grey showing in the photograph.

I'm not sure just what white dresses suggest. Girls may have been most likely to wear white dresses, but t hese requires more reseach. The best clue on white dresses would be the color of the accesories such as waist sashes and decorative ribbons. Blue sashes would of course suggest a boy, although I am not sure when this convention first appeared. Blue has apparently become associated with boys because it was the cheapest dye available in the 17th Century.

Colored dresses provide some clues. It seems likely that girls would wear brighter colors than boys who were more commonly dressed in muted colors.

Accessories (ribbons and sashes)

White dresses have always been popular dreesup atire for children. Sometimes the only destinguishing clie was a colored ribbon. We now think of blue as indicating boys. I'm not sure how this color conventiion came about. However it is not a perfect indicator. Some girls wore blue also. In additun there has not always been perfect agreement about what color repesenrd which gende. Differences exist over time and between countries.

Another color factor was the hue. Girl's outfits tends (I stress tended) ] to be more coloful tham boys garments. Boys dresses were sometimes rather dark, muted fabrics.


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Created: Secember 5, 1998
Last updated: March 25, 2001