I love looking at period photographs. So often you see faces that tell a story, ones that make you laugh, ones that make you cry. The daguerreotype with the assistant gently pushing the toddler back in to view, the hidden mother who is under a tablecloth to stay out of view, the dandy with his enormously large hat, or the sad pre-mortem taken as a memento for the loved ones left behind.
Such a cutie
Photo of Lucy Crouse- Crouse Series Greene Connections: Greene County, Pennsylvania Photo Archives Project in 2005
Family Portrait: Parents with Their Three Children, c. 1850- Smith College Museum of Art
These images also hold a huge wealth of costume information. One major benefit compared to the other inspirations I have (or that will be) listed are that these are real clothes on real people.
Big Eyed Beauty 1/6 Plate daguerreotype c.1850s - mirrorimagegallery flickr
Museum of Photographic Arts collections - 1855
There are of course the odd exceptions; staged shots in costume, fancy dress and satirical images, or occasionally you will see an ill fitting dress where lady has borrowed an item from the photographers wardrobe. Unlike fashion plates that show you the ideal of what people will be wearing during a certain year, photographs will show you the actuality of what was being worn.
Mr and Mrs Iltide Thomas c.1850s - LIGC National Library of Wales
Portrait of a family 1855 - Museum of Photographic Arts Collections
I particularly like generational photos that often show the difference between the younger generation and their forebears.
Family portrait - George Eastman House Collection
This is another benefit of photographs against fashion plates, in photographs you can find people from different socio-economic backgrounds and of all ages.
Mrs Fisher (1784 -1868) wife of Archibald Fisher, a labourer and carter from Rothesay c.1848
Newhaven fisherwomen, Jeanie Wilson and Annie Linton 1845 - University of Glasgow Library
Fashion plates tend to focus on the teens to twenties females, with a plentiful sprinkling of children, occasionally babies, very rarely toddlers (having a two year old myself I've had great difficulty in finding fashion plates with children in the 2-4 year bracket), and I can't think of a single fashion plate where I have seen someone who could have been considered of advancing years. Men's fashion plates, though existing, are also not particularly plentiful.
Victorian Family - mirrorimagegallery flickr
I love all the little details in this daguerreotype. The jewellery (especially on the girl), belt, whitework sleeves & collar, lace mits, headdress, satin waistcoat. Also like that the lady is wearing her glasses, which in quite unusual for a portrait of this era.
Miss Coddington c.1852 - National Library of Ireland
Of course period photographs have some shortcomings. The first known photograph of a human wasn't taken until 1838 with the first known portrait in 1839, so you can only research after these dates.
The original daguerreotype boyfriend
Self Portrait of Robert Cornelius- first known portrait photograph 1839
Miss Dorothy Catherine Draper - June 1840
Colour photography only really took off after 1900, so apart from the occasional hand tinted image we can only guess at what colours might be lurking in the greys and black of an image.
Mother and Child Hand Coloured Ambrotype (Collodion Positive) c. 1860
whatsthatpicture - flickr
I wonder if they were originally in matching colours or if there is a little artistic license being applied?
1/6 Plate daguerreotype of either a husband and wife or brother and sister - Mirrorimagegallery flickr
I really love this image, especially her hair. Can only imagine what colour her dress and ribbons would have been.
Precise dating can also be a problem. While some photos come with inscriptions that handily give us the date of an image, and many will have the photographers studio (which will help narrow down the date to when they were operating), sometimes it can be difficult to establish a date. I've seen many images of mature ladies wearing crinolines and adopting older styles well into the bustle period. Sometimes you will see styles that look as if they belong to two separate decades, were they ahead of the trend in some respects, or only just adopting a style that was already established? And sometimes you will just see something unique, in an era filled with hand-made garments you will see flashes of ingenuity, artistry, flair and the little hand finished touches that we still love in hand made items today.
1/6 plate daguerreotype- mirrorimagegallery
I adore this bonnet with its decorative velvet ribbons and the way the feathers create an aurora round her.
Quarter-plate daguerreotype (3.25 x 4.25 inches) circa 1853 - the American museum of photography
Beautiful bonnet trim and zigzag fichu
Unidentified woman, with jewelry woven into hair - Missouri History Museum
There are many sources of period photos online. A general google search of any of the following terms should bring up a plethora of images : daguerreotype, tintype, ambrotype, calotype, CDV.
And I shall leave you with one of my all time favourites.....
Proud Mother and Laughing Infant, 9th-Plate Ambrotype, Circa 1860
lisby1 - flickr