Let’s play detectives.
One photo is all you and I have to go on. The badge on the cycling jersey and the pin on the jacket lapel tell us the cyclist was a member of Balham Cycling Club, but can the photo tell us anything about the date of the club’s existence?
Family genealogists and photo collectors use a number of techniques to date a vintage photograph. Let’s have a go…
1 The type of photograph
When cycling became popular in the 1860s with the development of the mass produced Boneshaker, three photo types dominated the market. Carte de Visite first appeared in the 1850s and consisted of a photograph pasted onto a mount. In 1866, it was joined by the larger Cabinet Card. The third was the Tintype. Around since the 1850s, photographers were still using them in the 1950s at British seaside resorts. Very cheap to produce they would often look muddy in appearance and the card was roughly cut. From about 1904, many photographers produced studio portraits in postcard format. You could still go to a studio and have your portrait taken but now it could be produced in postcard form and sent to family and friends.
Verdict: A tintype studio portrait postcard seems likely as it is using a photographer’s backdrop, in a postcard format and roughly cut. Photo taken after 1904.
Photographer’s name and address
However, if our specimen was any of those described it would of had a photographer’s name and address on it. It could be home made. Box Brownies were in the hands of the middle and working classes from 1901. The camera was held at waist height and a photo taken (a photo at such height a good indicator that it was taken with a box brownie) then developed at a chemist.
Verdict: Would have been easy to date the photo from a name and address in a trade directory but without them it has just muddied the water.
Postcard stamp and postmark
A stamp or a postmark would make the process of dating our photo a formality but it hasn’t been sent to anyone through the post.
Before 1902, the back of a postcard would have been left blank for the address only. After 1902 the back was divided by a line down the middle – one side for the address the other for a message.
Verdict: It’s a postcard from 1902 at the earliest.
Clothing of the time
Clothing can place a person in a particular decade, give an insight to his job and class and what part of the country he is from. Our cyclist is in his cycling gear rather than his everyday clothing but it will be sympathetic to the time. In 1900 men wore three-piece lounge suits with bowler or cloth caps and jackets were narrow with small, high lapels. Most collars were starched and upstanding, with the corners pointing downwards. Some men wore their collars turned down, with rounded edges and modern knotted ties. In the 1910s the three-piece lounge suit was still common while in the 20s men wore narrow-cut lounge suits, with pointed collars turned down, and plain or simply patterned modern knot ties.
In the 30s three-piece suits were for work or formal occasions only. Two-piece suits (without a waistcoat) and casual day wear were becoming increasingly common, including knitted cardigans, tank-tops, and soft collared or open necked shirts. For the first time it was not obligatory to wear a tie. Trousers were very wide, with turned up hems and sharp creases down the leg. They were belted high at the abdomen.
Verdict: No clear pattern but after the First World War
3 Props and other visual clues
*Edited 25 Feb 2016 following reader input
The rider seems to be riding quite a large gear to judge from the size of the chainwheel. The chainset is of BSA manufacture and was made prior to 1908. There was a vogue for large chainwheels and long cranks in the period 1902 – 1907 and the machine illustrated has those features in addition to the correct style of handlebar. The bicycle is new in the photograph as the nickel plating is un-marked.
Verdict: Looking good for between 1902-1907.
Painted backdrops were introduced in 1860 although very popular in the 1910s and 20s. This one offers few clues. The window style spans the 19th and early 20th century.
Verdict: A backdrop paints a thousand words – but none of those words are a date. Maybe 1920s
Cycling club badges
A review of eBay badge sales, old cycling club literature and club websites suggest the wheel spoke style badge was more prevalent in the 20s and 30s. See Bec Cycling Club as an example. Fonts can give clues to the age of items. Of the most popular older fonts News Gothic (the one in the Star Wars intro) or Gill Sans look the best match.
Verdict: Badge style looks 1920s. If the font is News Gothic it’s after 1908, if it’s Gill Sans then it’s at least 1926.
By the time of the industrial revolution a pocket watch had become an important part of middle and lower class society. Rail and Tram workers particularly relied on them (there is a good chance our cyclist worked on the trams). The wrist watch was introduced in the years leading to the First World War.
Verdict: Anything between 1910 and 1930.
4 Hairstyles and facial hair
‘Tache of the day
Facial hair has gone in and out of the fashion in 1900’s. Beards were reserved for mainly older men, and most young men sported neat moustaches and short hair. 10 years later older men sported beards, but younger men wore moustaches or went clean-shaven. When the First World War began, it was compulsory for all British officers to have a moustache. That edict was revoked in October 1916, because the new recruits were so young that they couldn’t grow one. Between the wars it was common for men to be clean-shaven.
Verdict: The First World War is a key factor here: either between 1900-1916 or 1920-1930 although it’s highly unlikely a man would be photographed out of uniform during the war.
In the 1910s men’s hair was worn parted at the side or the middle. In the 20s hair was cut very short at the sides, parted severely from the centre or the side and smoothed down with oil and brilliantine, or combed back over the top of the head.
Verdict: Looks like a 1910s parting.
5 Who is in it
A golden rule of family history research is ‘don’t attach a story to photo without hard evidence’. I think this is my Great Uncle Harry based on no hard evidence. He was born in 1884. Apps that deal in working out the age of people using face recognition software are pretty consistent in giving the age as late twenties.
Verdict: I know, I know…a load of conjecture and nonsense. I can’t help myself. Before 1914.
Weighing up all the clues I think this was taken between 1907 and 1914.
Can you help in identifying when this photo was taken? Does that style of bike look familiar? Is clothing of the 10s/20s/30s your area of expertise? Are you a font aficionado? Photography processes and technology your thing?
Email me at email@example.com or drop me a line in the comments box. I would love to hear from you.
History section of PocketWatch.co.uk
Men’s fashion section was based on an article on the V&A Museum website.
Various photography websites but I found Cartedevisite very informative