Welcome to the third 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.
The previous two blogs have focused on how to identify photographic formats and how to discover the photographer’s operational dates. These techniques both offer the potential for broadly or, sometimes, fairly closely dating a family photograph. Another effective method of determining the circa date of an unidentified card mounted studio photograph is recognising the style of the mount.
The main card formats of the Victorian and Edwardian eras – the carte de visite and larger cabinet print – were in use for several decades, but their physical characteristics, especially their shape, colour and reverse design, changed significantly over time, providing helpful clues as to approximately when they were produced. Some photographers may occasionally have used slightly old-fashioned mounts but usually they updated their stocks regularly, so the style of a card mount generally offers an accurate dating guide. Looking closely at the mount can be especially helpful if the photographer in question was in business for a long time, as he or she would have used a succession of different mounts over the years.
Card thickness and corner shapes
The earliest cartes de visite always have square corners and the card is usually quite thin and flexible, bending easily, like a playing card. The square-cornered shape prevailed from the beginning of the 1860s until the late 1870s. Around this time rounded corners began to be used, although they were uncommon before the early 1880s. Cartes de visite and larger cabinet prints dating from the 1880s until the early 1900s usually have rounded corners, although square corners did appear periodically, so a square-cornered photograph could occasionally date from these years.
The card used by the late 19th century was generally much thicker and sturdier than that used for earlier mounts, a development that facilitated bevelled edges that were often finished in silver or gold. In the 1880s and 1890s, some cartes and cabinet prints were also protected by a flyleaf – a covering of fine protective tissue pasted along the top edge of the reverse and folded over the front of the photograph. Usually the tissue has not survived (often it was removed when the photograph was placed in an album) but signs of its earlier presence may remain on the back of the mount.
The colour of photographic mounts is a more obvious, recognisable feature than card quality. 1860s mounts are usually very pale in colour – off-white, ivory, light cream and slightly pinkish tones (fig.s 1-3). These neutral shades continued into the 1870s, although during this decade there emerged a vogue for coloured card, especially turquoise, gold-yellow and sugar pink (fig.s 4-6), the latter being used for both male and female subjects. Of these colours, pink was most popular, remaining in use throughout the 1880s and even into the very early 1890s.
Otherwise, soft colours gave way c.1884/5 to deep, strong shades such as blood-red, bottle-green, black and chocolate brown (fig.s 8 and 9). The red was only popular for around 10 years, until the mid-1890s, but the other dark colours remained fashionable until the early 1900s, especially green. In addition, strong creams, beiges and apricots were common between the 1880s and early 1900s (fig.s 7 and 10-12), while different shades of grey, from pale to dark, were very popular around the turn of the century (fig.s 13 and 14).
Occasionally cartes and cabinet photographs were left blank on the back, but more often the reverse was, as we saw in my second blog, printed with the photographer’s details. The style of the lettering and any accompanying designs changed dramatically throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, broadly becoming more and more elaborate over time. Some mount designs dovetailed with others, or spanned more than one decade, and a number of different styles were popular at any given time, yet it is still possible to discern and date the main design trends.
The earliest cartes, dating from the early-mid 1860s, were printed or stamped neatly in small letters with the photographer’s name and address (and a crown or royal coat of arms, if the studio boasted royal patronage), the details usually placed in the centre of the mount, or occasionally at the top or bottom (fig.1). After the mid-1860s, the text expanded outwards from the centre, often incorporating flowing font styles, while business information concerning additional copies and or/prices was sometimes added at the bottom of the mount (fig.2).
By the late 1860s, further design features were also beginning to appear, especially representations of photography exhibition medals awarded to the studio: being dated, these provide a helpful post quem date for the mount (fig.3). By the turn of the 1860s/1870s, delicate filigree scrollwork and ribbon-like banners may also occur on mounts (fig.4), these motifs and medals all being used throughout the 1870s. Also popular during the 1870s were crests, coats of arms and shields – emblems which may be combined with the other decorative forms – while three or four different font styles were often used together, producing an increasingly eclectic and busy effect (fig.5).
By the later Victorian era, typically photographic mounts were highly elaborate, with complex lettering and expansive decoration usually filling the whole of the back of the mount. During the 1880s and 1890s, designs were very diverse, with many variations occurring. One popular style shows the studio or photographer’s name sprawled diagonally across the mount: between the 1880s and early 1890s the slanting name may be bordered by ornate filigree work and embellished with a decorated capital letter S or P (fig.6).
Another characteristic design of the 1880s/1890s is the card decorated with an elaborate outer border, the text and any other motifs contained within (fig.s 7 and 12). By this time it was also common for photographers to promote their artistic skills through use of the appellation ‘Artist’, ‘Art photographer’ or similar, expressing concern to emphasise their superior, professional status in the face of perceived competition from a new wave of amateur photographers (fig.s 7, 9 and 14).
Reinforcing the artistic theme, many mounts incorporated artists’ palettes or easels (fig.s 12 and13), while other pictures also began to appear. During the 1880s and early 1890s scenes depicting swimming or flying water birds among reeds or bamboo were popular, often accompanied by fans or parasols in the corners, expressing the contemporary vogue for Japanese imagery (fig.10). Alternatively, classically-draped female figures, cherubs and fairies may occur on some mounts of the mid-1880s through to the late-1890s (fig.s 8 and 13).
Meanwhile a printed detail noticed on some late-1880s and, especially, 1890s and early-1900s mounts is the promotion of ‘electric studios’ or ‘electric lighting’, a helpful dating feature which reflects the new, modern method of illuminating photographic studios (fig.11). By the late 1890s, mounts were losing their most exuberant decoration and those dating from the turn of century or early 1900s often appear more ‘modern’: font styles are usually plainer, typically demonstrating shaded effects, and bunches of flowers or other botanical motifs are common (fig.14).
For more information and/or further pictorial examples of mount styles see:
Audrey Linkman, The Expert Guide to Dating Victorian Family Photographs (Greater Manchester County Record Office, 2000)
Jayne Shrimpton, How to get the most from Family Pictures (Society of Genealogists, 2011)
Look out for the fourth blog in this series, coming soon. View Jayne’s website here