A 7-year-old girl sits at a dining room table with a cake and candles in front of her. A buffet with birthday cards is behind her.

Clothing Helps and Hinders

I rely on clothing to help date photographs relative to each other. Sometimes this reliance is helpful, other times it sends me down the wrong path. I usually find my way back, but only after considering additional features of the images.

Formal family portrait

My focus on dresses began with a family portrait. There are many variations from that day (different poses & backgrounds, mother & father only, daughters only). Each time I discovered another of the ten images from this series, I eagerly turned it over, hoping for definitive labeling on the rear.

A 1976 formal family portrait taken by Olan Mills. A family of five is pictured: parents, two older daughters, and a younger daughter.
Ten images in this series, with little guidance on the date.

Finally, I happened upon a single 3×4 image that my mother took the time to label.

The rear of a 1976 family portrait; a mother recorded the date and who is pictured.
The detail lends credibility to the date recorded.

Unfortunately, I later came across two others from the series where she had written “73-74” on the rear. Since Mom was very specific with the June 1976 labeling, I am going to discount the “73-74” labels. (Was it 1973, or 1974? Or neither? Obviously she wasn’t sure when she recorded the information). The 1976 documentation is much more specific and thus reliable.

Two dresses repeat

It appears that two of us in the family portrait were wearing the same dresses in 1974 pictures. I know from the development date on the back that this photo dates to 1974, although my sisters and I are unable to determine the event. My oldest sister is wearing the same pink dress and scarf as in the family portrait, taken two years later.

A father poses with his three daughters in a living room. The two adult daughters are on either side of him. The youngest daughter is in front of him. He is wearing a suit and tie with a pipe in his mouth.
The pink scarf is tied differently in 1974, but it’s the same outfit as 1976.

This 1974 Christmas image shows me wearing the same dress I wore in the 1976 family portrait. I remember the pink ribbon around my waist. I find it hard to believe that I hadn’t outgrown this dress 18 months later; I do have a vague recollection of it being a tight fit for the family portrait.

A 4-year-old girl is seated on a floor with a blue balloon on her left and a Fisher Price castle toy on her right. There are two horses in front of the castle.
The dress was acquired in 1974; perfect for playing with the Fisher Price castle.

I find it surprising that two of us wore the same dresses for events in both 1974 and 1976. I kept trying to make all of these photos fit into the same year because of the dresses. I finally realized that the images were from two different time periods, two years apart.

Dating a childhood portrait

I wore the same floral dress with a pink ribbon in this formal portrait, which was not dated by my mother. Comparing it to the holiday photos from 1974, I believe my age in this portrait is more reflective of 1974 than 1976.

A black & white portrait, but the same dress as the color photos above.

Significant events in 1974

As noted above, my sisters and I don’t know what event prompted these particular photos. I am puzzled, because everyone seems to be dressed up except for me (the short one). I have a timeline of significant events in my family; I refer to it when I encounter images like these with no obvious story.

There were two significant events in June 1974 that might explain these photographs. My oldest sister (pink dress) graduated from college, and my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. We expect that the adults in the family were going out to dinner to celebrate one or both events, while the youngest member of the family (age 3.5 years) probably stayed home (or maybe I just wouldn’t wear a dress).

25th anniversary portraits

My parents are wearing the same outfits in these formal portraits. Although not dated, we surmise they were also taken in 1974.

Formal portraits of a man and woman, in a paper frame supplied by the photography studio, Olan Mills. The man is holding a pipe and wears a plaid suit. The woman wears a pink and white vest over a white top and wears a silver necklace.
These formal portraits likely commemorate a 25th wedding anniversary.

It’s not the same day as the family snapshots above – my mother’s necklace is different, as are my father’s tie, pipe, and shirt. These portraits were probably taken to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary, as there are no accompanying pictures that include the three daughters.

The long quilted dress

I don’t have fond memories of this dress; the bottom half was quilted and itchy. It was long and too warm. Although I remember the dress, I went round in circles trying to figure out what birthday these pictures are from. Some of the candles on the cake are partially obscured, so I cannot count them (a technique I used successfully for other images). The development date of January 1978 on one would imply my 7th birthday in December 1977.

A 7-year-old girl sits at a dining room table with a cake and candles in front of her. A buffet with birthday cards is behind her.
The development date in the lower right corner helps to date this photo.

However, a previous review of these images led me to believe it was my 6th birthday. I finally realized that my hair is different – in the image below, I have bangs. In the image with the birthday cake, I don’t.

I evidently wore this dress for two birthdays: 1976 and 1977. I was trying to force these photos into a single occasion, but they actually represent two different birthdays.

The red jumpsuit

One other clothing detail helped me solidify dates for these pictures. In the photo below, my sister is folding a red jumpsuit as I move on to the next gift.

A 6-year-old girl opens her birthday gifts in a living room. An older friend is on her right, then the girl's mother, older sister, brother-in-law, middle sister, and another adult male.

I wore that same red jumpsuit in my kindergarten class portrait, dated 1976-77. I don’t know if the portrait was taken before the end of the calendar year or the next year.

A kindergarten class picture with 26 students, taken in Ohio between fall 1976 and spring 1977.
The red jumpsuit: third from left, front row.

The most likely explanation is that I received the jumpsuit as a gift in December 1976 and then wore it for my kindergarten portrait in winter or spring 1977. I see two other jumpsuits in the class photo (girl in brown and gold, second row; girl in blue, far right, first row). Mine was a red knit with colorful trim. I think it also had a hood.

Stripes correct errors

I have written previously about incorrect labeling of family photos. Be prepared to question everything in writing! Below is another formal portrait from my childhood. My father labeled it on the front in his block capitals, and my mother labeled it on the rear. Both claim that I am three years old in this portrait. Looking at this photo in relation to all of the others from the 1970s, I am clearly older.

Here’s a reliable image of me at age 3, with my grandparents’ dog (whose name we don’t remember).

A photo of a 3-year-old girl seated on the floor with a black dog next to her. A sofa and magazine rack are behind them.
A three-year-old me; definitely younger than the portrait with the bouquet.

I was able to date the formal portrait by comparing it to a single image in which I appear from December 1976. Although faded, I am certain that this dress is the same as the formal portrait; the stripes on the arms and bodice are the same. Now I know the portrait dates to 1976, not 1973!

A 6-year-old girl playing with toys on a living room floor. She is wearing a turquoise jumper with a striped top underneath.
My birthday or Christmas, both in December 1976 (developed April 1977).

In summary

As one attempts to date photographs, clothing is only one factor to consider. I’ve noticed that my grandmother wore the same attire at holiday events repeatedly over the years. Based on my review of the photos in this post, so did sisters, mothers, and fathers. Even for children who may quickly outgrow things, clothing isn’t a reliable method for dating photographs. Important events called for our best attire, and quality clothing was worn by everyone in my family for various occasions over multiple years.

Comparing different types of photos – formal portraits, family snapshots, and class photos – can help determine whether documented dates are accurate and solidify dates you have already deduced. Assess all images in your family collection, regardless of format (e.g., videos and slides may offer insight beyond prints).

Although the events that prompted particular photographs may never be known for certain, referring to a list of key family events and dates may help narrow down the potential occasions for a select photograph.

Seven adults are seated around a dining room table. A holiday centerpiece appears in the center of the table. They are likely eating dessert, as there are no serving dishes on the table.

Looking Within Photographs

In reviewing 1974 Christmas photographs, I remembered some fun details to include in the Caption field in Lightroom. I also realized that these images preserve my maternal grandfather’s last Christmas.

Fruit for Christmas

At first glance, this image captures my father explaining a new toy train to me. Then, the round red object in my right hand caught my eye. Is it a ball? Next, I noticed a round orange object on the new toy train – an edible orange! The object in my right hand must be an apple.

A father is on the right, pointing to a toy train. On the left, a 4-year-old girl is listening intently to what he is saying about her new toy. The train has an orange on it, and the young girl is holding an apple inner right hand.
I am listening intently about this train hauling fruit.

My parents were children of the Depression. They always received fruit for Christmas when they were young (a real treat in the 1920s and 1930s). Tradition required that me and my sisters would receive several pieces of fruit in the very bottoms of our Christmas stockings. This particular year, my fruit gifts served a dual purpose.

Fortunately, the Caption field in Lightroom has sufficient space for me to document the fruit memories as well as other details about this photograph.

Pictures within pictures

At least half a dozen times so far, I have used pictures displayed on a piece of furniture or hung on a wall to help date the picture in which they appear. In this photo of my grandmother, the bride in the wedding photo on the bottom shelf of the table was the daughter of close family friends.

A grandmother is seated on a living room chair. There are presents on the floor on both sides of her chair. She is wearing a green and white dress and has her legs crossed.
The wedding photo on the bottom shelf offers clues.

The friends’ daughter was married in 1974, so it must be Christmas 1974 or a subsequent Christmas. The back of the above photo indicates it was developed in January 1975, reinforcing that this picture is from Christmas Day 1974.

If you know the date of a picture within a picture, then the image you are attempting to date must have been taken after the known date.

A last Christmas

My paternal grandparents died more than a decade before I was born. I have limited memories of my maternal grandparents. As I come across photos of my mother’s parents, I find myself wondering when the images were taken relative to their deaths. I realized that these Christmas 1974 photos represent my maternal grandfather’s last Christmas.

Compared to photos from just a year or two earlier, my grandfather appears more frail.

Final time with relatives

My sisters and I know that the individuals around this dining table are relatives of my grandfather’s, who is seated with his back to the camera.

Seven adults are seated around a dining room table. A holiday centerpiece appears in the center of the table. They are likely eating dessert, as there are no serving dishes on the table.
A final holiday season.

This picture is also from 1974; from the centerpiece on the table, I know it is still the holiday season. My grandfather’s shirt is not the same one worn on Christmas (photos above), although my grandmother’s dress is the same (she is to his right). It must be a different day in late December. How heartwarming to see that my mother hosted these relatives of her father’s during the busy holiday season. We did not see these relatives often and cannot identify all of them. It seems likely this was the last time they saw my grandfather before his death in the first quarter of 1975.

I find that I have a broader appreciation for images when I consider them relative to other major events.

A father is holding a two-year-old daughter so that she can blow out candles on her birthday cake, which her mother is holding.

Two Candles; It Must Be 1972

Dating photographs and identifying the events in them is a continuous process with my family’s collection of images. Photos have been removed from albums, reorganized into new albums, or left loose. Some pictures have writing on the rear, but many don’t. Most don’t have a development date stamp on the front, either. I find myself assessing images multiple times, learning to observe hairstyles, clothing, and the number of candles on a birthday cake. My powers of observation are growing stronger.

The original assessment

I’ve written previously on the mistakes I’ve found with my mother’s dating of photographs (descriptions and dates on the rear). Such mistakes were made even when the writing of the dates occurred close to the time the pictures were taken. Of course, errors also occurred when we attempted to date pictures decades later.

When I originally reviewed the series of photos in this post with my mother (~30 years ago), she guessed they were from 1973 or 1974. So, that is what I wrote on the rear of each one of them at that time. I have now determined we were off by a year or two.

Reviewing never stops

As I digitize our family photos years later, I am learning to look within each image for clues. I know not to trust the assessments from three decades ago – useful information, but not always accurate. I realized that the key to dating these particular images was the number of candles on the birthday cake in one of the pictures. There are two candles, so it must have been my second birthday. Now I know this group of photos dates to 1972, not 1973 or 1974.

A father is holding a two-year-old daughter so that she can blow out candles on her birthday cake, which her mother is holding.
Mom, Dad, me, and a birthday cake with 2 candles.

Compare photographs

I loved the Peg Set in the lower right of this photo. It had a lot of small pieces, so I expect it wouldn’t be recommended for a two-year-old in today’s world. I remember it wasn’t large – about the dimensions of a legal-size piece of paper. It was colorful, easy to play with, and easy to disassemble. There were boats, vehicles, trees, blocks for buildings, and round pieces that I always thought of as globes for light poles.

A two-year-old girl is on the left, with a box of Finger Paint on her lap. Her mother is on the right. They are seated on a living room floor, and a Peg Set is on the far right of the picture.
Playskool Peg Set in lower right corner.

I reached out to my older sisters to ask them what they remembered about this toy. I wondered if it had belonged to them first, eventually being handed down to me. Perhaps it was something our mother picked up for me at a garage sale. They remembered the toy, but not anything else.

A two-year-old girl is seated on the left, her mother on the right. The girl has a Finger Paint box on her lap. To the mother's left is a toy Landscape Peg Set.
The text message reply from one of two sisters.

A week or so later, while digitizing these birthday pictures, I noticed the Playskool Landscape Peg Set box in these images. The box looked too big for the toy I remembered, but an online search indicated that, sure enough, it was the box for the toy that I recall so fondly. Comparing the series of photos yielded an answer to my question – the Peg Set was a gift for my second birthday.

I wonder who was brave enough to give a two-year-old Play-Doh and Finger Paint (photo on right)?

The big box is a mystery

None of these photos indicate what was in the large box, wrapped in brown paper and decorated by hand with stickers. For now, that remains an unknown.

Comparing photo formats

There are six images from my second birthday (all shown above), three with rounded corners and three with white borders. I deduce that two different cameras were used for the occasion. I can tell it is the same event because of my clothing, and the gifts. My mother’s clothing actually changed at some point during the day (white blouse and black skirt became a green sweater and plaid pants).

We do have three other photos with white borders that are not birthday related. All six of the border photos are unlike any others in our collection, so I think it is safe to assume (for now) that all six are from the same timeframe. Comparing photo formats (or development formats) can help determine (or at least narrow down) what time period photos are from. I feel fairly certain that these three photos are also from late 1972 or early 1973.

Summary

As I scan images for my family’s digital collection, I file the prints in a box, loosely organized by decade. I have repeatedly gone to the box when I come across an image that reminds me of something I scanned previously. As you work on digitizing, make it easy to refer back to the original hard copies of what you have already scanned. By comparing images in the ways described above, you can deduce a lot more than would be possible by assessing each image independently. Evaluating groups of images (even if the subject matter is unrelated, the image format may not be) may help you piece together a story. I love the detective work!