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.


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!

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