Welcome to the eighth in our series of blogs about how to understand and interpret your old family photos. In this series, Jayne Shrimpton, internationally recognised dress historian, portrait specialist, photo detective and regular contributor to Family Tree, Your Family History and Family History Monthly magazines, dates and analyses different types of photographs and helps you to add context to your old family pictures.
In our photo blog series so far, we have been looking mainly at professional studio photographs (with the exception of some outdoor wedding scenes – see previous blog). This time we turn to family ‘snapshots’ – informal photographs set in real surroundings, taken by amateur photographers.
History of amateur photography
Amateur photography – as distinct from professional, commercial photography – was practised from the earliest times. For many years, however, it remained essentially a genteel pastime for the privileged classes – those with the means to buy expensive, elaborate apparatus and leisure time to devote to experimenting with the medium.
Unmotivated by business interests, early amateur photographers tended to be more interested in the aesthetic aspects of their craft and often shared knowledge and ideas through photographic societies. Family picture collections today very occasionally include early amateur photographs from the 1840s to the 1870s, but such examples are rare.
During the 1880s, various innovations gave a significant boost to amateur photography. Dry photographic plates became widely available – more sensitive and more convenient than the old wet plate method – and ‘modern’ developing out papers for producing prints also came into general use. Price reductions in photographic equipment and supplies also made photography more affordable for middle-class hobbyists, but perhaps the greatest change of all came with improved camera design.
In the United States, George Eastman was trialling gelatine-coated paper-backed film for use in roll form in a specially-designed camera. In 1888 he launched the Kodak No.1 camera – a relatively simple box camera loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film: this was sent back to the Eastman factory for processing, the camera also being re-loaded there and returned to the customer. To demonstrate the ease of the new method, Kodak devised the famous slogan: “You push the button, we’ll do the rest.”
The traditional glass plate method was still used by professionals and serious amateurs, who usually processed their own pictures, but taking photographs no longer necessitated advanced technical skills, artistic ability or complex equipment.
For enthusiasts with little expertise, the practise of photography was becoming much easier. It was at this time that the term ‘snapshot’ (first coined in 1860) began to be popularly used to describe the spontaneous photographs being taken by the new wave of amateur photographers or ‘snapshooters’. Amateur photography was still a specialist interest in the 1880s and 1890s and owning a camera was not yet an option for the masses, but a few of today’s private photograph collections do include late-Victorian family snapshots (see Fig.s 1 & 2).
By the early 20th century, amateur photography was gathering momentum and was soon to become a leisure activity enjoyed throughout society. In 1900 the user-friendly Box Brownie camera was launched – again ready-loaded with film – and this inexpensive, popular model encouraged many ordinary working people to try out photography for themselves.
By the 1910s new, more convenient models of camera were also coming onto the market, such as the Kodak Vest Pocket Camera, introduced in 1912. During the First World War reputedly many soldiers took one of these folding cameras away with them and a massive increase in sales was recorded during 1915. Evidently the 1910s were definitely a turning point, for significantly more family snapshots survive for this period than for the previous decades (see Fig.s 3-5). By the interwar era the camera was a familiar gadget in many homes, snapshot photography was becoming increasingly popular and professional studio photographs were no longer in such high demand.
Photographs were taken by the family photographer to record both special events and everyday scenes and all private photograph collections are likely to include amateur snapshots. A few family historians may be fortunate in possessing late-Victorian or Edwardian examples; however, the majority of surviving snapshots date from at least the 1910s. Most of those taken during the early-mid 20th century are set outdoors where there was a natural source of light, for illuminating interiors was difficult in the period before flashbulbs came into general use.
Colour photographs may very occasionally crop up by the 1930s or 1940s, but colour photography was still in its infancy, and most family snapshots taken before the mid-1960s will be black and white images.
Unlike formal studio photographs carefully composed in contrived, artificial settings, casual family snapshots portray earlier generations posing more spontaneously in genuine surroundings, so they provide more realistic and accurate portraits. They may include elderly ancestors who had lived most of their lives in the 19th century, or, conversely, much younger relatives who are still alive today.
From the garden of the family home to a weekend picnic spot or a favourite holiday destination, they show the places that family members frequented and where they spent their leisure time. Some scenes are full of interesting historical detail, including images of the friends, neighbours, colleagues, household pets, vehicles, buildings, objects and material possessions that were familiar to the family in earlier times. Family snapshots are therefore of tremendous documentary value to today’s researchers, offering fascinating visual records of domestic, working and social lives and glimpses of special and everyday human experiences.
Surveying the evidence
Sometimes the subjects and/or settings of old snapshots are instantly recognisable, or perhaps a reliable verbal explanation has been passed down through the family. In some cases the back of the paper print or an album page may be annotated with helpful handwritten details such as names, the year and the geographical location.
Other snapshots from the past may initially be unidentifiable and, frustratingly, also unlabelled – baffling images of unfamiliar people or places. But before giving up, consider whether a snapshot may perhaps be recognisable by someone else within the family: it may well be worth consulting older relatives for ideas or information.
It’s also possible that another family member has a copy of the same, or a very similar scene that has been annotated on the back by the photographer or one of the people in the picture. Finally, remember to look closely at other snapshots in the wider collection, as one image may be able to shed light on another, as transpired with Fig.1 below.
Some family snapshots remain elusive and appear to give little away: perhaps they are proving hard to positively identify or the setting seems to be a complete mystery, as is often true of open landscapes. Even if this is the case, remember that there is factual information to be gleaned from every surviving image and further analysis and research may eventually lead to clarification of the scene.
Dating family snapshots
As with all types of old photograph, it is important to try to determine an accurate date range for undated family snapshots as this will automatically narrow down the possibilities regarding identification of the subjects and setting. Unlike professional photographs, with snapshots there is no studio setting, card mount style or photographer data to help with dating, although it may be possible to loosely date the size of the print (see Recommended Reading for books offering further tips).
Otherwise, any date estimate has to be based on the visual image itself. Much has been written in family photograph books about spotting different kinds of visual clues that can potentially help with dating a snapshot: for example, buildings or street scenes may suggest a particular time frame. Various different elements in a picture could, theoretically, be relevant, but in my experience the most useful features are the fashions worn by the subjects and any vehicles occurring in the scene.
Through experience of studying clothing styles, or with useful visual sources or dress-dating guides to hand, it is always possible to gain a reliable time frame for a photograph from the dress worn by its subjects. With casual snapshots taken at home or out and about, people aren’t always wearing their most fashionable ‘Sunday best’ outfits, but even so ordinary day clothes, comfortable holiday and beach garments and sports wear can always be dated to within about 10 years – if not a closer time frame.
In blog No.5 we looked at dating family photographs from their fashion clues and this gave a basic timeline of the main developments in dress up until the mid-20th century. In addition, several of the books in the Recommended Reading will provide more detailed guidance and many good images with which to compare your own snapshots.
Some 20th century snapshots will include a family car or motorbike, or a charabanc, bus or commercial van or lorry in the picture – vehicles that offer dateable evidence. Motor vehicles can usually be dated approximately from their make and model and perhaps very closely from their number plate, if this is visible. In addition letters on the plates may show the district of registration, thereby offering further clues as to geographical location.
Three of the photos in the snapshot sequence below were analysed and dated by car experts from the Surrey Vintage Vehicle Society – Fig.s 5, 8 & 10. The wonderful website of the SVVS (www.svvs.org.uk) displays thousands of historic images of all kinds of motor vehicles, providing helpful visual comparisons for family snapshots, while their ‘Help’ page offers free assistance with identifying/dating vehicles in family photographs.
In addition, Old Classic Car – www.oldclassiccar.co.uk – includes a helpful Car Registration Numbers Index. Also some of the major car manufacturers have a ‘heritage’ division within their organisation and sometimes an archivist who may be able to explain more about early cars owned by the family.
Some wheeled vehicles that crop up in photographs are of the non-motorised variety: – bicycles, tricycles, tandems and other contraptions that moved by pedal-power (Fig.s 11 & 12). In the 1930s when health, outdoor exercise and physical fitness were high on the agenda, and before there were many cars on the road, cycling became very popular, with membership of cycling clubs soaring and major cycle races being organised.
For help with identifying and dating these kinds of vehicles in photographs, visit bicycle history websites or search online for an independent expert who can help you – they do exist!
Even when a snapshot is dated, or its subject(s) and location have been identified, it can be very rewarding to carry out further investigations, to try to discover more about the scene and gain a clearer understanding of how it fits into the family’s history.
There has never been a better time to research old family photographs, especially if you have access to the internet, as so many collections of historical material are now available online and you never know exactly what you will find once you begin digging around.
Try scouring some of the online image collections that exist, for example county archive photo collections or community or local history websites, as these may display dated photographs from the past that have a bearing on your own snapshots. Or take the central subject/theme of the picture as a starting point and try to discover more about what it represents, or its history.
Consulting official records and delving into other random sources helped with confirming and fleshing out the details of several of the photographs in the sequence below. For example the estimated date and location of the early snapshots seen in Fig.s 1 & 2 were supported by checking census returns and ships’ passenger lists; general internet research and obtaining a naval service record helped to explain the setting and context of Fig.9; Fig.11 was firmly located by deciphering the image clues and researching holiday camp history online, while a new perspective on Fig.14 was gained by learning about early surfboards and surfing traditions with help from www.museumofbritishsurfing.org.uk.
Old pictures can be enjoyed on many levels and sometimes it takes patience and ingenuity to unravel all their layers of interest and meaning. Casual family photographs may seem to be very ordinary images, but every one is fascinating and valuable, offering a vivid snapshot of family life in the past.
The Snapshot Photograph: The Rise of Popular Photography, 1888-1939, by Brian Coe & Paul Gates (Ash & Grant, 1977)
Dating 20th Century Photographs by Robert Pols (The Alden Press, 2005)
Family Photographs and How to Date Them, Jayne Shrimpton (Countryside Books, 2008)
How to Get the Most from Family Pictures, Jayne Shrimpton (Society of Genealogists, 2011)
Everyday Fashions of the 20th Century, Avril Lansdell (Shire Publications, 1999)