Very frequently, I am presented with glorious photographs of local places or people with no clue as to when the photos were taken. Less frequently, there will be a caption on the back of a photo saying, for example, that it is of “John Buchholz 1942.” Knowing that John Buchholz died in 1932, I am somewhat suspect that this photo was actually taken in 1942. Call me a cynic.
So, what do we do about dating photos? We can actually look to the photograph to provide some clues. This involves studying the photo and any housings carefully, with a magnifying glass if necessary. Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor in Photographs: Archival Care and Management have some great hints when determining a date or period:
- List the obvious things: business signs, calendars, license plates, theatre marquees
- Look for building styles, clothing styles, transportation systems (horses or automobiles?)
- Note what isn’t there: cars, telephone poles, machinery, the Twin Towers in New York
- Ask why the photo was taken: tourist views, family celebrations, advertising
- What type of image mounts are used: card stock, studio mats, cases
- Written evidence: autographs, captions, copyright dates, inscriptions, studio credits
The photo below is the original Avon School on the road which eventually became Highway 6, located about 300 yards west of the current Avon Road. There is a fence surrounding the school yard.
We know through newspaper reports in the Eagle Valley Enterprise that, in 1915, an addition was added to the school building, extending the entrance and adding a belfry with a school bell. There was also a horse barn and coal shed in place by the time the addition to the building was complete. So, we know that the photo above was taken prior to 1915 and the photo below was taken after 1915.
Again from local newspapers, we know that there was an addition to the back of the school done in 1920-1921.
We also know that when Highway 6 was widened in 1948, the horse barn and playground were torn down. Thus the photo above was taken some time between 1921 and 1948. If we continue to research and discover a date for the construction of a playground, we will be able to narrow this time frame even further.