ClassyArts Blog

December 3, 2009

Photo Dating Clues: Lengthwise and Diagonal Imprints

Filed under: Dating Images — ajmorris @ 3:51 pm

On card mounted photographs, we may see the photographer’s imprint on front, on back, or both. When the imprint is on the back, it can be oriented the way most portraits are, with the ‘upright’ dimension the longer one, so the text runs parallel to the shorter side. Or the text can be oriented parallel to the long side, like a typical business card, which is what I am referring to as ‘lengthwise’ imprints, though they are sometimes called horizontal imprints.

It is also possible that the imprint can be diagonal, though it is rare to see one in which all the text is perfectly diagonal — more often one element, often the photographer’s name, is diagonal, and other text is either parallel to the short side (vertical) or lengthwise.

Here we are going to look only at card-mounted photographs with photographer’s imprints on the back, and see which way they run, and note if that gives us any clues as to the date the photograph was taken. Using my digital collection of dated images, I will compare the frequencies for particular styles, and measure how their popularity ebbs and wanes through time. Remember that this is a large, but not totally random selection of cards, so any statistics generated should be considered indicative of relative trends, rather than treated as absolute percentages.

For this study, the term ‘imprints’ includes only information printed on the back of card mounted images. Many photographers used rubber stamps in the 1860s and later, and after 1900 many card mounted photographs have blind-stamps — but neither of those will be included in this study. Rubber stamps can be oriented any which way, and vary from one card to the next for the same photographer. Blind imprints are usually intended to be read from the front, though they often are also visible from the back, they are really not intended as back-side imprints.

1860s Imprints

My first observation is that probably 99% of prints from the 1860s are vertically oriented — lengthwise imprints are very rare. One little drawing of a cased image has text running lengthwise, but the case itself is vertical. Darrah mentions lengthwise imprints with large type from 1868, but I don’t have any in my collection of dated images.

1870s Imprints

In the 1870s (see image below) we begin to see lengthwise imprints from the very beginning of the decade, and they become popular rapidly, representing about half of all imprints 1871-75. Unfortunately for our use of this characteristic as a dating criteria, the style takes a very long time to die-out, though it is never again as popular as in the early 1870s. Almost 40% of all imprints from the 1870s from our collection are printed lengthwise. Here are some typical examples.

Typical Lengthwise Imprints from the 1870s

Typical Lengthwise Imprints from the 1870s

The most interesting observation about these imprints is that they are all parallel to the long side — none have any major printed element diagonally angled. This caused me to look more closely at the vertical imprints — and they too are almost entirely without diagonal print in the 1870s — the only exception came from 1879, and is illustrated in the next image, along with several typical examples from the 1880s. No doubt a larger sample would show more with angled print from the late 1870s, but still we can be confident that they are not at all common.

1880s Imprints

When I refer to diagonal elements, I mean straight lines of text, tilted at an angle in relation to the card edges. This is not to be confused with curved text lines, which were very common from the 1860s (how late they extend will be a subject for a future study). Those may be simple curves, or complex double-curves (S shaped).

Diagonal Imprints or Diagonal Elements Within Vertical Imprints

Diagonal Imprints or Diagonal Elements Within Vertical Imprints

The upper left example is from 1879 and shows a predominantly vertical imprint with one diagonal line and several slightly curved lines. The other three imprints are from the 1880s, and two have just the photographer’s name at an angle. The bottom right example has all of the text angled, not just one line. In such a case it could be viewed as either lengthwise text slanting upward, or vertical text slanting down. Such examples seem more common from the 1880s. It is not unusual to see just the photographer’s name printed on the back at an angle, but that is generally tilted at less than 45 degrees from the long edge, so it is clearly intended to be read lengthwise.

In the 1880s we continue to see lengthwise imprints, though they drop off in popularity to less than 25% of all cards — but nearly twice as many cards seem to have been produced in the 1880s as 1870s, so the absolute numbers are about the same for each decade. Now, however, we see about half of the lengthwise imprints have a major element (or the entire imprint) sloped diagonally. Over the same period, about 1/3 of all vertical prints have a major diagonal element.

Diagonal and Lenghthwise Imprints from the 1880s

Diagonal and Lenghthwise Imprints from the 1880s

1890s Imprints

By the 1890s the lengthwise format falls in popularity even further, to about 10% of all cards with back-imprints. By that time many cards only had front imprints, so the total percentage of 1890s cards with lengthwise imprints would be much lower than 10%. The diagonal element continues to be seen on about half of the lengthwise printed cards, but now vertical cards with a diagonal element are also about 50%, up from the 33% of the previous decade. These percentages for diagonal elements are not evenly distributed through the decade, as are those for presence (or absence) of lengthwise imprints, but are heavily weighted toward the beginning of the decade. So almost 75% of the cards with diagonal elements for the 1890s are found between 1890-93, and none were noted after 1897.

1900 and Later

After 1900 I don’t see any photographer’s imprints printed lengthwise in my collection, but cards in those years only rarely include a back-imprint, so the sample is rather small. I can say with confidence that lengthwise imprints are rare from this period, but probably not non-existent.

Of the vertically oriented imprints after 1900, none are at all diagonally oriented, nor do they include individual diagonal lines of text — but again it is a small sample. Remember too, I am referring only to cards from the USA and Canada: cards from other countries produced after 1900 more commonly include back-imprints, though I have not yet studied their orientation.


In conclusion then, cards from the 1860s will rarely have photographer’s back-imprints printed lengthwise, while 40% of those from the 1870s are lengthwise, and over the succeeding two decades the format continues to appear, but at frequencies dropping to 25% and then 10%. For major diagonal elements in the imprint, they are rarely seen prior to 1880, but are increasingly popular from that date through the early 1890s for both vertical and lengthwise formats, then drop off to almost nothing after 1897.

Looked at another way, if you have a card with a lengthwise imprint, 85% of the time it dates from the 1870s or 1880s, nearly evenly divided between those decades. If there are diagonal elements in that lengthwise imprint, then chances are 3 out of 4 it dates to the 1880s. If you have a card with a vertical imprint that includes a diagonal line, or an imprint that is entirely diagonal, then half the time it will date from the 1880s, and 45% of the time from the 1890-97.

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