Dating Your Old Photos


Researching the James family is very interesting, even more so if you think you have a photo of Jesse and Frank James or one of the James family members. The Jesse James Birthplace gets this question on a weekly basis along with copies of the photos visitors are trying to identify.

Here are several suggestions regarding researching your photo.

  1. Try and date your photo by three different methods
    1. Hairstyles
    2. Clothing
    3. Type of photographic paper the picture is printed on
  2. Does your photo have a frame that can be dated?
  3. Do you live near an art museum? If so, contact the curator and they can assist you with dating your photo.
  4. Is there some type of identifying mark in or on the photo, such as a street sign or the photographer’s name? If so you can possibly research where and when the photo was taken.
  5. Provenance of your photo is going to be of the utmost importance.

Then think logically. We know Jesse was born in Clay County, Missouri, on September 5, 1847, and Frank in 1843. Look at the subjects in your photo. How old do they look to be? Do the dates jive? An excellent book to assist you with your research is Dressed for the Photographer by Joan Severa. This book can help you date photos from the 1840s-1900.

For example, a photo was recently posted by a visitor to this facebook page as being James family members. It was easily determined that the subjects in the photo were not James family members. We determined this based on who the visitor thinks the subjects were in the photo by their birth and death dates, looked at the clothing styles and quickly figured out it was not James family members.

For instance, a subject in a photo was born in 1863 and looks to be about 10 years old in the photo, however, the clothing styles are early 1890s. So the subject should be early 30s and not a young girl. It didn’t jive.

Another example, a subject in the photo was born in 1849. The clothing style is definitely 1890s; however, we know this family member passed away in 1889 so we know it is not a family member. This happens many times with photos that are thought to be Jesse James. When you look closely at the photo you can see that the clothing or an identifying mark in the photo is clearly after Jesse’s death in 1882.

Please research your photos closely before paying for something you THINK might be Jesse James. Jesse James was a wanted man. Why would a wanted man have his picture taken? Frank on the other hand, lived to be an old man and greeted guests at the James family farm and often had his photo taken. The same holds true for Zerelda, Frank and Jesse’s mother, as she gave tours at the farm after Jesse’s death. Many visitors posed with her in the yard of the farm.