My cousin Alan sent me some lovely images of cabinet cards that belonged to my great grandmother, Alice Vince Pinborough. He already knew who the individuals were, but the date of the photos was a mystery. So, in the spirit of collaborative genealogy, I offered to do some research and investigate.
Researching Cabinet Cards
Cabinet cards are a style of photograph that were popular during the 1870s to early 1900s. They were thin photos mounted on roughly 4.5 inches by 6.6 inches card stock that typically advertised the photographer on the front and back. Their predecessor was a smaller card, about 2.125 inches x 3.5 inches, known as cartes de visite or CDV that was popular around 1854 to 1870. There are less of these to be found today, but you can use some of the same techniques researching a cabinet card to research a CDV.
There are lots of details on cabinet cards to help identify their production date including type of card stock, corner shapes, borders, card color and the photographer's name and address. Keep in mind that unless someone was kind enough to write the date the photo was taken on the cabinet card, it will be difficult to pinpoint it exactly. But, with a little patience, you can narrow it down within a few years and gain more precision based on other clues including: other photos of the individual, clothing, background details, life events and more.
I don't know about you, but I can get easily distracted by the plethora of data on the web. To keep myself in check, I try to stick to the classic K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid!) method, and Occam's razor (abbreviated to"the scientific principle that, all things being equal, the simplest answer is usually the right one" - made famous by Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact").
Since most cabinet card clues have rather broad date ranges, with lots of overlap, I prefer to restrict my search to the photographer details as there are fantastic records of where and when they worked. Especially for the UK, which is where most of the cabinet cards we have originated.
I always start with three main UK Victorian photographer websites:
Early Photographic Studios UK - by Robert Pols. Directories of Victorian & Edwardian photographers in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, Norfolk, Northamptonshire, Rutland, and Suffolk. (Note: Their site is no longer being edited and is available for archive purposes only.)
photoLondon - "gateway to London's public photographic collections. Dadabase of 19th Century Photographers and Allied Trades in London 1841-1901" (Note: Their site is no longer being edited and is available for archive purposes only.)
PhotoTree.com - Valuable information to identify cabinet cards by color, artwork, borders, edges and more. They also have a gallery with over 1,000 images of cabinet cards, but it doesn't appear to have been updated since 2013.
If I can't find an answer within those sites, then I search Google. My three tips:
- Someone Has Probably Already Done the Research. Google The Obvious.
Type the photographer, studio and/or address into Google and browse the results. Find the closest match and follow the clues. You can also click the images tab and browse results visually. See what pops out at you. About 80% of the time, I find what I'm looking for staring back at me. When you find a good resource, store it somewhere for future use to help shortcut your process.
- Follow the Clues, but don't get lost in the woods
It's easy once you start finding answers to one question to start asking more questions and follow other trails not pertinent to your inquiry. When you find what you are looking for, move on to the next task you had planned. Otherwise, you'll emerge two days later with the life history of a person, place, or thing that has nothing to do with what you needed but is all very interesting just the same.
- Reverse Image Search on Google.
I think I'm a pretty savvy internet user, but only recently did I discover that you can upload a photo to Google and it will find similar images for you. While most photos from the 1800s and early 1900s are rare, there is still a good chance you can discover more about the images you upload for matching. But, stay focused, see tip 2 above. Google image matching is not perfect, but it continues to improve and I suspect it will be even more useful to genealogy researchers over the coming years. To use it:
Visit images.google.com or click the camera icon in the search box on any Images results page .
Click Upload an image.
Click Choose file
Select the image from your computer.
Examples of Dating Cabinet Cards
Alan sent me this photo of Walter Vince (1861-1928), brother to my great grandmother Alice Vince (1867-1941). Here's how I narrowed it down:
I Googled "David Hum & Co 90 Newgate Street London" then skimmed the results. The 4th one down seemed to have the most details in the description so I clicked it and found The PhotoLondon, gateway to London's public photographic collections, with results for Hum, David & Co as follows:
Alternative names: Hum, David & Co
Born 1848. Died 1926.
Hum, David & Co.
Born in Witham, Essex 1848.
STUDIOS: 1. 90 Newgate Street, City of London 1 floor November 1879 - 1888. Successors to Hum & Bishopp; succeeded by J C Taylor & Sons.
2. 58 Cheapside, City of London 1890 - 1891.
In Tottenham 1877 - 1901; in Sheffield 1880 - 1903; in Birmingham 1880 - 1881.
Died in Bournemouth 1926.
LITERATURE: IN Modern London. London, Historical Publishing Co, (1890). p 168.
It was that easy to determine that the photo was taken between 1879 to 1888. 1879 & 1888 minus the year Walter was born puts his age at between 18 and 21 for this sitting. Since I have a pretty tight age range, I'm not digging anymore. At least, not today.
Next up is William Vince. This one was a little more challenging. Since I already had discovered the PhotoLondon site, I checked there first - no luck. So I went to another site I like, Portrait & Studio Photographers in the UK , which has photographers by county. I determined Norwich was in the county of Norfolk and checked the listing where I found these results:
Name Year Address / Comment
Gavin, J.W. 1901 85 St Giles' st., Norwich / Eastern Counties of England Directory -
Gavin, John 1896 85 St. Giles street, Norwich / Kelly's Directory of Norfolk -
Gavin, John 1900 85 St. Giles street, Norwich / Kelly's Directory of Norfolk -
Gavin, John 1904 85 St. Giles street, Norwich / Kelly's Directory of Norfolk -
Gavin, William J. 1881 2 Somerleyton St, Heigham / Census - Head, printer, 36, born Liverpool, Lancs
Gavin & Banger, 1888 White Lion st., Norwich / Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk -
Gavin & Banger, 1890 Back of the Inns, Norwich / White's History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk -
Gavin & Banger, 1892 85 Up. St. Giles st., Norwich / Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk -
I also discovered an ad on page 5 of The Photographic News dated 1888
Now, the addresses on the card are White Lion & 85 Giles, so based on the results, I can estimate 1888-1900 for this card as by 1901 Gavin & Banger were probably no longer working together. That's a twelve year range which would put William between the ages of 23 and 35. Based on his appearance, it's clearly the younger side of this range. I know he was married in 1892 at the age of 27 - and given his style of dress in this portrait, it seems most likely this photo was from his wedding day. This is, of course, a guess. Further clues would be his walking stick, and what appears to be a military or police cap & pin on his jacket, though these items could also be props from the photographer. Since I've only given myself a few hours today to work on this, I have to move on and return to his age here later as future clues emerge.
I went straight to the UK Photographers directory for this one and found William Lewis Shrubsole worked a number of locations:
Name Year Address Comment
Shrubsole, W.L. 1901 Grove rd., Norwich Eastern Counties of England Directory
Shrubsole, W.L. 1911 82 Chapel Field Road, Norwich Jarrold's Directory of Norwich
Shrubsole, W.L. 1914 82 Chapel Field Road, Norwich Jarrold's Directory of Norwich
Shrubsole, William 1888 Victoria studio, St. Stephen's road, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk
Shrubsole, William L. 1890 5 Davey pl. & 2 Exchange street, Norwich White's History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1879 1 Ely place, Carnarvon road, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1888 Market place (Exchange street corner), Norwich Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1888 Davey place & Victoria station, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1892 Exchange st. corner & 5 Davey place, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Cambs, Norfolk & Suffolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1912 82 Chapel Field road, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, William Lewis 1916 82 Chapel Field road, Norwich Kelly's Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, Wm. L. 1883 5 Davey place, Norwich White's History, Gazeteer & Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, Wm. L. 1896 13 Briggs st., Norwich Kelly's Directory of Norfolk
Shrubsole, Wm. L. 1904 83 Grove rd., Norwich Kelly's Directory of Norfolk
This excellent list puts the photographer at Davey Place & Victoria Station between 1888 & 1890 which would make Margaret around 24 to 26 years old. This is in keeping with the dark card which was popular from 1885 to 1895.
For this card I again deferred to the best directory I've found, UK Photographers directory, searched Norfolk county and found Mann & Adcock was operating in 1883 at 6 Up. St. Giles' St. Norwich source: White's History, Gazeteer & Directory of Norfolk. Another reference puts them there 1865-1883. Adcock was working with another partner by 1888 on Upper street so that narrows this image to 1883-1888. That puts Anna between 4 and 11 years of age. There was another lovely clue on this card, the "Marion Paris London" printer reference at the bottom of the back along with the graphic fan in the corner and the turned page at the top. According to researcher Roger Vaughan, these elements appeared at the end of 1888 which would make Anna 11 in this photo. It seems a bit old based on her appearance, but much more likely than 4. I can narrow her age later as more details of her emerge.
One of the many magical things about sharing family history is finding more clues to what you have been searching. While staring at these photos for a few hours, I realized the faces seemed very familiar. So I grabbed my collection and flipped to some unidentified cartes-de-visite and cabinet cards. Sure enough, I think I've found younger, and older photos of these family members. More on that tomorrow when I research some CDV.