Like in many countries, by the 1870s commercial studio photography was well-established throughout Ireland. Urban photographers with fixed premises portrayed local residents and visitors in their studios, while some operators travelled out into the countryside to photograph people in remoter rural areas.

With a general growth in both studio and open-air photography, many more of our ancestors appear in photographs by the late- 1800s – both in images originating in Ireland and in those taken overseas.

Techniques for dating old family photos include: identifying the photographic format; researching photographers/studios (where known); dating the style of card-mounted prints; dating the visual image, especially the fashion clues.

Recognizing Photographic Formats

By the 1870s, the early plate-based formats- daguerreotypes and ambrotypes were no longer being produced by studio photographers, although outdoor ambrotypes continued to be taken until the 1890s by open-air operators in the street, the park and on the beach.

The other types of late 19th century photograph to be aware of are cartes de visite (cdvs), cabinet cards and tintypes (ferrotypes). Cdv prints on card mounts measuring 10 x 6.5cms, fashionable from 1860, remained the most common photographic format. Larger cabinet cards/portraits (around 16.5 x 11.5cms) had been launched in 1866, but only grew fashionable from the later 1870s onwards: most date to the 1880s/1890s and later.

Tintypes, more correctly termed ferrotypes, were cheap on-the-spot photographs, one-off images struck onto a thin piece of iron. Surviving examples may be framed under glass or cased, while others survive simply as small sharp-edged metal plates. Tiny ‘gem tintypes’ – little bigger than a postage stamp – were set into regular printed card mounts. First developed in the United States in the mid-1850s, tintypes were most popular in America, so ancestors who travelled across the Atlantic may well appear in tintype photographs. British tintypes are much rarer, especially studio tintypes: many more were, like ambrotypes, taken outdoors on the beach, and other places of entertainment.

Researching Photographers/Studios

Plate-based outdoor ambrotypes and tintypes don’t usually bear any information, but card-mounted cdv and cabinet cards were often printed with studio details, wherever in the world they originated. It can help to investigate photographer/studio operational dates when trying to date old photographs and many researchers are already familiar with this method.

It is certainly worth conducting an internet search for a named photographer or studio in order to discover what, if any, information, including business dates, has already been recorded. Some reputable online sources exist for early photographers operating in particular countries, counties and cities. For instance, one website deals with Dublin studios in Ireland, while another covers the northern counties.

Victorian photography in certain geographical areas is examined in printed books and this is true of Irish photographs, for which I recommend:

  • A Century in Focus: Photography and Photographers in the North of Ireland, 1839-1939, W A Maguire (Blackstaff Press, 2000)
  • Through the brass-lidded eye: photography in Ireland 1839-1900, E Chandler & P Walsh (Guinness Museum, 1989).

Recorded dates can offer a useful guide, especially if a photographer was not in business for long, although we should be aware of the limitations of such data, which is not always complete. Some regional studios have not been fully researched and it may be necessary to undertake first-hand investigations, using census returns and trade directories. Alternatively, Ron Cosens, who supplied most of the images for this article, may be able to provide reliable data on application, for a small fee.


This cdv is coloured the golden-yellow popular in the late- 1870s – 1880s, the reverse design most characteristic of the 1870s. The Dublin website places W G Moore in Upper Sackville Street by 1879 and the lady wears a slender ‘Princess’ dress, a fashion of the mid-late 1870s. Image courtesy of Jayne Shrimpton

Dating Card Mounts

Most professional card-mounted photographs from the 1870s-1890s period are cartes de visite or cabinet prints and their individual characteristics can help with dating. Small cdvs dominated the 1870s and 1880s, larger cabinet portraits more common from the 1890s, so size matters!

Mounts of the early-1870s were usually flimsy and had square corners but during the later 1870s they began to grow thicker and increasingly corners were rounded. Coloured mounts also occur, especially sugar pink and bright golden yellow in the later-1870s and 1880s; black or bottle green were fashionable between the early-1880s and c.1900.

Printed designs on the back of mounts grew increasingly ornate. During the 1870s several different font styles came into use and decorative devices included ribbon banners, scrolling filigree ornamentation and heraldic-style motifs. By the 1880s designs often expanded across the entire mount reverse and ornate capital letters were fashionable. During the late-1880s and 1890s elaborate borders around the edges of the card were fashionable, as were pictures, especially figural art and oriental-style imagery.

Dating Visual Images

Full-length compositions portraying their subject from head to toe in a contrived studio setting drifted on from the 1860s into the 1870s, although a close-up three quarter length pose was coming into vogue. This new style, showing the subject in more detail but minus their lower legs, dominated the 1870s to 1890s. He or she was either portrayed seated at a table or standing, surrounded by studio ‘props’: a painted backdrop, furniture and plants.

Our ancestors generally dressed in their best quality, most fashionable outfits when visiting the photographer and so their appearance is usually the most accurate method of dating an unidentified photograph. In the early- 1870s women’s dress was softly layered, the back skirt fabric puffed up over a bustle projection behind the waist: bodices and hairstyles were very ornate and jewellery was chunky and decorative.

From mid-decade with the introduction of the rigid, elongated cuirass line, the bodice narrowed and lengthened; the earlier bustle receded downwards, the front of the skirt flattened, while the back material extended into an elegant train. The slender one-piece ‘Princess dress’ was a fashionable garment. During the early-1880s clothing was sheath-like: bodices were tight-fitting and sleeves very narrow, while skirts were gathered and pleated, hemlines worn short, on the shoe.

From c.1883-4 a second bustle developed at the back, becoming a more exaggerated protuberance. Dark cloth was favoured and the necklines of bodices were uncomfortably high, accentuating the severe effect. Women’s headwear grew very tall between 1885-6 and 1890.

Large cabinet prints were more fashionable than cdvs by the time of this photograph and usually date to the 1890s or early-1900s. This reverse design with ornate border indicates the late-1880s-1890s, and the lady’s puffed sleeves narrow the date to c.1896-98. Image courtesy of Carte de Visite.

From around 1889 the bustle declined, leaving slight residual padding around the hips. In the 1890s an hourglass silhouette developed: waistlines became cinched, bodices grew ornate and tailored skirts flared outwards towards a wider hemline. The main feature was the sleeve, which gained a small vertical puff from 1890, the so-called ‘leg-o’- mutton’ style expanding year on year, until upper sleeves reached their greatest width c.1895-96. Subsequently the puffs rose higher up the arm, becoming a neat ‘puffball’, frill or epaulette by 1899-1900.

Menswear was more uniform than women’s dress. During the 1870s a three piece suit developed comprising lounge jacket, waistcoat and trousers, the longer frock coat a more traditional garment. Some men wore full, bushy beards, while headwear included the formal top hat and new bowler hat. The cut of clothes was moderate until the late-1870s-1880s when a narrower style developed. The lapels of jackets and coats were small and neat, fastening high, revealing only a glimpse of shirt collar and necktie.

Hat crowns were low in the early-1880s, rising high during the late-1880s and 1890s. The cut of clothes loosened slightly towards 1900.


–  This article appeared in issue no 112 of Irish Roots magazine.