Dating 19th Century Portrait Photographs

A MARAC Newark 2017 Half-Day Workshop, Instructor: Gary Saretzky, Monmouth County Archives

Blogger: Barbara Gombach, student, Palmer School, LIU, Archives & Records Management Certificate Program,

Perhaps you’ve seen them in an archival collection or museum, or seen modern reproductions at a Civil War reenactment. Or even for sale on eBay. Wherever you may have encountered them, know that archivists in the MARAC region could not have a better guide to the fascinating world of 19th century portrait photographs than Gary Saretzky, archivist in the Monmouth County Clerk’s Office in Manalapan, New Jersey. Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visites (now commonly called cdvs), and cabinet cards. Changing photo production processes, the history of photo studios and prominent photographers in Newark and elsewhere; Gary Saretzky knows it all.

Daguerreotype    Photo Courtesy of Gary Saretzky

A photographer who taught the subject and practiced the craft for many years after becoming an archivist, at MARAC-Newark, Gary held a pre-conference workshop on” Identifying 19th Century Portrait Photographs.” Using his extraordinary slide collection, he illustrated chronologically the development of these remarkable photo types, training the eyes of workshop participants to attend not only to clothing and hair styles but also to studio props, datable objects included in a photo, backgrounds, decorative motifs, housing design and materials, style of mounting, thickness of card stock, hallmarks on metal plates, and more—all clues to dating these enduring historical and artistic treasures.

Mary Todd Lincoln Tintype   Photo Courtesy of Gary Saretzky

In addition to the sheer aesthetic pleasure of closely viewing each type of portrait photograph and beginning to learn how to date them, participants learned something of their historical context. For example, during the Civil War in 1864, Congress instituted a tax on various goods in order to defray the government’s war debts. The goods ranged from perfumes and cosmetics to cigar lights, wax tapers, playing cards and photographs, namely ambrotypes, cdvs, tintypes, and daguerreotypes. Photographers were required to affix these “tax stamps” – which for photos could have added a hefty 10% tax or more to the retail cost of photos priced up to 25 cents –  to the back of commercial photos and also to hand-cancel them. The practice lasted for almost two years from 1864 to 1866, so the presence of a stamp helps greatly in dating photos from that time period.

As was fitting for MARAC’s Newark location, participants saw many photos from studios that had operated in Newark itself, as well as photos from nearby locations such as the Jersey Shore.

Gary provided a bibliography of relevant publications and websites. Participants could also handle and personally examine samples of these small treasures, making this fascinating and informative workshop truly hands-on.


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