Dating Images of 20th Century Children

Figure 1.--.

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

Gender Identification

One problem associated with dating old photographs to assess clothing trends is to identify the child's gender. This problem continued in the 1900s as mothers continued addressing small boys in dresses, but it was less common and declined considerably in the 1910s. Thus for much of the 20th century beginning in the 1920s it is fairly easy to identify a child's gender.


Problems persist in dating images. 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. Identifying countries becomes especially difficult after World War II (1939-45) and especially in the late 20th century as European boys adopted a kinf of pan-European fashion.


Photographhy for most of the 19th Century was static, usually taken indoors. (Some suggestions in dating 19th century photographs are available in the 19th century guideline page.) Out door photos did not become common until the late 1890s, but until the invention of the Kodak Brownie in 1900, few people could aford to take snap shots or master the complications. Several indicators such as prints on post card paper or color images can help date the photograph.


Furniture is one of several items in old photographs that can help date them. One of the easiest is wjicker furniture. This became common in the late-1890s. We see a lor of whicker furniture painted white in turn-of-the 20th century photographs and early-1900s. We also see whicker furniture in the 1910s, but it is often natural whicjker, not the ones painted white. A good example is a plain whicker chair used at the American Passaiant Memorial Home in 1915.

Hair Styles

Hair styles changed dramatically, especially for younger boys. Older styles such as ringlet curls persisted into the early 20th century. Considerable cahnge, however, ocucurred after World War I (1914-18).

Hair Bows

Some boys continue to wear hair bows in the early 20th century. This fashion, however, was little seen after World War I.

Dress Styles

Mothers continue outfitting younger boys in dresses in the 1900s. The dresses, however, were style much more plainly than those of girls. Many mothers chose tunics--a kind of skirted garment rather than dresses. In the 1920s, after World War I, the fashion of young boys wearing dresses rapidly disappeared.

Boys Clothing Styles


Boys were often dressed in tunics in the early 19th century. HBC has, however, realtively few images of boys wearing tunics. The style appeard to have declined in the 1840s. In the late 1890s, however, the tunic became a very popular choice for younger boys and this continued until the early 1920s.


The kilt suit, a popular style for boys in the late 19th century, was still commonly worn in the 1900s. It declined substanyially in popularity during the 1910s and was little seen after World War I.

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


Stylistic Details







Srriped socks

White stockings

Gender Specific Clothes

The modern viewer is acustomed to seeing girls wearing boys clothes. Indeed modern boys and girls are often indistinguishble dressed in "T" shirts, 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. Modern styles have almost completely reverse. Girls now think nothing of wearing boys clothes.


The advent of outdoor photography has meant that a variety of backgrounds often inadvertenly provide useful information in dating photographs. Home styles, cars, machinery, and other technological developments can often be dated.





Figure 5.--This 1978 French photograph, I assume a Paris scene, shows most of the boys wearing long shorts.


Cars can be fairly easinly dated. Many people, mostly men, are great car buffs and extrely knowledgeable about car models. Often cars are one of the easiest to ate element in a photograph. A HBC reader, for example, offers this assessment of the French image here. "All the cars look about right for the late 1970s; the Renault 5 "LeCar" (second car back on the left) looked a bit odd to me at first as the LeCar had round headlights up to 1981 or so, before getting old-style square sealed beams in chrome "sugar scoops"; that, however, could only apply to the US export version. In fact, it probably does! I'd love to know what the van on the far right is; at first I thought it was a raised-roof VW bus, but it has a grille. If you need any further demonstration that French style differs from American, that Citroen taxi at the left front was designed at a time when the "Coke bottle" look was all the rage in Detroit; the US equivalent would probably be a Dodge Coronet/Monaco (like the police cars in late '70s TV/movies)."


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Created: September 5, 1998
Last updated: 6:09 AM 5/5/2010