Dating Old Family Photos: Clues Under the Christmas Tree

Vicki’s note – article from Family Tree Magazine “Photo Detective” Maureen A Taylor.  Maureen always has very good insights into dating our ancestor photographs.  Several of her books, listed, are in our Beloit Public Library’s collection and have come in handy.  I rely on  her expertise to help me narrow down the time periods in any photos that I am asked to evaluate.  My goal is to get 1/4th as good as she is.  It is a very complex process which involves learning about clothing styles, history, cultural history, the history of photography,  history of toys, and the history of interior decorating; as well as knowing as much as you can about that family’s genealogical history. 

Have you ever had the fun of recognizing a small article of decor, or wallpaper, in a room which helps you realize which relative’s house you see pictured?  Get out the magnifying glass, or enlarge the photograph on your computer or scanner, so that you can see all of the clues to help you identify the photograph and people. 

Then write down when, who, what, where on the back of photo with special photograph pens.  I found archival Zig Memory System pens online that work well, and do not bleed through or crease the photographs.  I need to actually do more work on my own photo collection.  I am also digitizing my Mom’s old photographs to “rescue them” from irreverent care, and getting them labeled while she remembers.  (The same labeling can be done as the “name” of the photograph/scan on your computer.  I try to put those from the same family or decade into folders labeled as such.  I.E. “Bennett Family, 1920s”.   The photographs that were already labeled are a lot of fun, and full of information.  zig


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Dating Old Family Photos: Clues Under the Christmas Tree
Posted by Maureen

There are heaps of clues in this charming old picture of two children admiring their Christmas tree. It’s an image from the Library of Congress, whose cataloging record dates it to between 1910 and 1935. That’s a pretty big 25-year time frame.

Can you spot the clues in this picture? They include:

  • tree ornaments and trimmings
  • children’s clothing
  • vintage train set
  • household decorations

Keep reading for a little more about each clue.

Tree Trimmings

The glass tree topper in this picture looks a lot like the one my mother always put on our tree. F.W. Woolworth‘s led the American market by first selling glass ornaments made in Germany and later, ones made in the United States. There is a good chance your ancestors bought their tree trimmings at Woolworth’s.

Tinsel has a long history that dates back to Germany in 1610. By the 20th century, artificial, aluminum-based tree trimmings had replaced natural garland made from cranberries and popcorn. Some were lead-based. The FDA didn’t restrict the sales of lead-based tree materials until 1971.


Bobbed hairstyles for girls became popular about 1915 and remained in style throughout the estimated time frame for this picture. Dropped-waist dresses for little girls debuted at about the same time, but this outfit has a scalloped hemline. Those were common in the early 1920s.

Vintage Train Set

A whole village with “snow”-frosted foliage rests under this tree. It’s an electric train set with real street lights. It could belong to the children’s father or be a gift for the Christmas shown.

If you have a toy train collector in your family, show him or her this photo and let’s see if they can date the era of this set. The National Toy Train Museum is another resource. Weigh in on this train set on our Facebook page.

Household Decor

Similar household decorations could be found in the Sears Catalog, which is digitized on (I’ll look there for the train, too.) Dating photos based household items is difficult, because families would keep themse items for years. The rug in this house is well-worn with a big spot near the train track, so the curtains and carpet also could be several years old.

Dating this picture relies on all the clues. The train could be key.

Count The Clues in Your Own Images

This image is a good example of how to break a picture down into clues. Establishing the dates for specific clues will not only help you verify the time frame for a picture, it’ll also help you tell a holiday tale.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

children | Christmas






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