A Closer Look: Dating a Photo

What’s the date of this photo? Take your best guess, and then I’ll mention some clues I pursued.

"Library of Congress. Card Division. General view"

Library of Congress Card Division, general view. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b08445

The photo shows the busy catalog card distribution office at the Library of Congress. There’s no date on the photographic print. Recently, we needed to determine when the photo was taken, so out came my magnifying glass.

The typewriters and the women’s clothing suggest the early 1900s. I looked in vain for calendars on the walls or desks that might have pinned down the date further. Then I wondered about the posters in the background.

Come to find out, we have both posters, and they’re dated!

"The spirit of America--Join"

The spirit of America--Join. Poster by Howard Chandler Christy, 1919. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b49224

"Third Red Cross roll call"

Third Red Cross roll call. Poster by Haskell Coffin, 1918. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b49751

The posters were issued in 1918 and 1919, so the photo was taken in 1919 or later. Although the office might have displayed the posters as decorations for a while, it seems more likely that the photo was taken shortly after the end of World War I. We added the date of “1919?” to the photo’s online description to help future researchers.

The dating question comes up often in historical picture collections. It’s not always easy to answer, because the people who made or collected the picture often didn’t leave much written information. Instead, looking closely at the image content frequently provides clues.

Looking into this dating mystery offered an intriguing excursion into Library of Congress history and reminded me of the wonderful connections to be found among the collections.

Learn more:

  • For more visual literacy tips and sites that help with dating photos, please visit the Prints & Photographs Division’s Researcher’s Toolbox.
  • For more World War I era posters, see the World War I Posters category in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

12 Comments

  1. Miriam S. Ratner
    September 8, 2011 at 7:35 am

    The picture was either the early 20th century or the end of the 19th century. I couldn’t tell you the date or who took it. Miriam S. Ratner

  2. Katherine
    September 9, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Great sleuthing plus extremely cool.

  3. Holly
    September 29, 2011 at 12:26 am

    I would say date the posters hanging on the walls where the books are. But also if you can get a good look at the model of the typewriters that may narrow the time frame down. The hairstyle of the lady on the left is another good reference :)

  4. Mario Padilla
    November 1, 2011 at 6:30 am

    I LOVE this. Thank you for sharing.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    No-one ever lost anything by opening book. ☺

  5. mahanagar times
    May 5, 2012 at 2:25 am

    Great Article for my help as the suggestions are in proper way thanks alot

  6. pratahkal
    May 5, 2012 at 2:26 am

    The hairstyle of the lady on the left is another good reference

  7. Sue
    May 23, 2012 at 9:41 am

    We can assume the photo was taken in the Jefferson building, but do you know which room specifically? Perhaps one of the rooms that is now an area reading room since it has the high, decorative ceiling.

  8. liza
    May 23, 2012 at 9:55 am

    So cool. I see that you looked at the clues I’d have suggested: posters, typewriters, hair styles. Love this. Thank you.

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