How to Date Photos When Even Your Family Can’t Remember Them!

by | Last updated May 5, 2020 | Organizing Originals, Organizing Digitals | 23 comments

“A couple of years ago, I started organizing my digital photos the way you showed in your naming scanned photos post, instead of by subject, etc.

I'm just now starting to archive all the photos my Mom has. As we are taking them out of the albums (which, by the way, I hate those old “magnetic” albums–the photos stick to the pages), she is telling me who is in the pictures, etc.

Most of the ones we are doing now are the real old ones–her family photos and my Dad's family photos. Some are dated and/or have captions to help identify them, but several don't.

The problem is she can't always narrow down the date enough to come up with a year. So that's causing me to have a lot of photos with '19xx-xx-xx' as the date. There aren't really any other family members who will know the answer so I doubt if the dates will ever be completed.

Any suggestions as to how to handle situations like this so I don't have a long list of '19xx' photos?

Thanks for your help.”

Patty D.

Patty, you are certainly not alone. I would suspect that most family photo collections have a considerable amount of paper prints that weren't dated or even captioned.

Back then, it was probably so easy to think you would always be around to tell someone anything they wanted to know about your photos. But, now we know that simply isn't the case. Important people's memories fade over time, forgetting these fine and seemingly unimportant details.

back of a scanned photo with the January 25th written but no year
Sometimes your prints will have part of the date, but then what year was it taken?  [back of a print]

And even sadder, important people in our lives eventually pass, leaving us with only the memories they have successfully communicated to us.

I must admit, my Mother is the last link to many of my family photos. Every day I wait to have her assist me with captioning info and dating our collection, is a day closer to the time I will be on my own for all of this information.

My Photo Naming Method

In Patty's question, if you are confused by what she meant by naming her photos with “x's” like in the example “19xx”, she is referring to a 3-part post series I wrote that explains a method I came up with to name your photos that will chronologically sort them in the folder they are stored in when you know the dates they were taken — as well as the times you don't.

The basics of it are that you start off the filename of a photo with the date it was taken. If there is any part of the date you don't know, you replace it with an “x”, keeping the length of the date consistent with all of the other images in your collection.

I find it to be very useful in many ways.

The Unseen Benefits of This Naming Method

First, and most importantly, I wouldn't worry about having too many images labeled “19xx-xx-xx” when you are first starting out. Personally, I would rather see you mark them this way now, even though you are still a little bit hesitant and uncomfortable with how many of them you have. Because, if you remove this information, you might be upset with yourself later for not making the effort to keep up with it. It won't hurt anything for this info to be there.

In fact, it can only help you later to save time.

Sometime later, when you are going through your collection and you find an image marked “19xx-xx-xx”, this will immediately let you know this is an image you are still doing investigative work on. If this highly specific formatting wasn't part of your workflow, then you might mistakenly make the assumption that you just forgot to include any kind of dating information in the filename or the caption within this photo.

This will possibly cause you to spend even more time recreating the research all over again to find out when this photo was taken that you initially spent time doing. Additionally, it will now be documented for whomever inherits all of your work, that you didn't know this information.

It's possible for some of us who are taking it upon ourselves to archive our family's photos that we can just glance through many of our photos and remember what work we still have to do on them. For example, we might know all of the photos we have sitting in a certain generically marked folder on our storage drive are all ones we still don't know the date when they were taken.

But, put yourself in the position of someone who might take over your collection at whatever state it's going to be in. They won't have all of your knowledge still in your head from all the time you spent working with your collection. Just seeing those photos marked with x's will let this person know you did your best to find out when the photo was taken, but just never found out for sure.

Even though it may not seem so at first, having “198x-xx-xx” really will be far more helpful than no date at all.

So if you can help it, don't “burn your clues.”

Some Suggestions How to Find the Missing Dates for Your Digital and Scanned Photos

Partially put together Jigsaw puzzle
Photo by olgaberrios.

There isn't one single system or method I know of that will work with all photos. Like it or not, this is going to become investigative work for you.

And so, if it makes it seem more fun, think of this entire project like you're putting together a giant and colorful jigsaw puzzle!

A few pieces will fit together easily and give you immediate confidence and satisfaction. But other times, you're going to have to set pieces aside and wait until you gather more clues to help you figure out how they all fit together as a whole.

So here are a few ideas that should help you find dates for these photographs.

Look For Processing Dates on Your Photographs

You shouldn't rule out looking for missing date information in places that are sometimes obvious yet easy to overlook. One of these places is the markings photo processors left us when developing our film.

When I was growing up, my Dad shot slides with his big fancy camera, and my Mom shot prints on her “point and shoot” one. A while back, I found a collection of prints from a family vacation we took to Disney World. I wasn't sure of when exactly we went on this trip from looking at them. My Mother was nice and wrote captions on the backs, but this time she didn't include the month or even the year that it happened.

Months later, I happened to come across a few slides my Dad took at a big theme park. Come to find out, they just happened to be from that same trip to Disney World! And it gets even better. Most slides have a date printed or stamped on them when they were developed.

Wahoo!

I can't say for sure this is the exact month and year we took our trip. But chances are, my Dad had the film developed that same month or at the latest the month after. So this date gets me really close at least!

Blowup image of the photo processing date stamped into a 35 mm slide mount
Often, depending on the material the slide mount is made from, the photo processing date is either printed or stamped. You can see in this blowup image the stamped date that is almost invisible to the naked eye.

So now, I can merge my Dad's slides with my Mom's prints from this same trip into a single event folder in photo managing software. Then I can label all of them with this month and year I found on the slides.

Like I was saying, the project really is like investigative work at times. As I piece together groups of photos, misplaced in different boxes and bags in my parent's house, I am finding clues that add up over time. And then I can really get a lot further into the process of chronologically placing these groups or events in order.

As far as prints, I rarely see any identifiable markings on their backs from processors. But, occasionally I will find a batch or two that were developed by a company that did mark the processing date. Usually they are really faint and appear as almost watermarks. So don't rule this method for prints out completely.

Look For Dates In Original Packaging Materials

Various photo processing envelopes prints came in.
Various photo processing envelopes prints came in.

Look on the outside and inside of any packaging your photos have been stored in all of these years.

Sometimes, they are actually being stored in the original envelopes or boxes the prints and slides came back from the developers in. There might be processing date stamps, printed copyright dates, or other visual clues to help you narrow down a date.

I've actually found a few paper cash register receipts from the developers with the date of purchase right there at the top, stuffed in the envelope with our stored prints!

And it's possible that original Kodak envelope your prints might still be stored in will have “Copyright Kodak © 1983” in fine print somewhere.

Blowup image of the copyright date printed on the 35mm negative holder from a film processor
I found this copyright date printed on the plastic 35mm negative holder we got from the film processor.

Study the Aging Process In Your Photos

Try getting a good start organizing your un-dated photos chronologically by how people are aging in them.

Some will be harder than others to decipher — sometimes a person won't appear to change much from one year to another. But, other times it will be noticeable and you can say, “Well my sister was clearly a baby here in these, and she's a senior in high school is those.”

So even though you don't know the exact years yet, you now mark the baby photos, “198x-xx-xx” and the others in the high school group “1999-xx-xx”. Then you can start putting other age groups of photos in and around those two “tent poles” of dates.

This might be the best way for old photos of your parents — especially the ones before you were present.

Sometimes just getting a few “tent poles” of big or medium-sized groups of time like this might help jog the memory of family members or friends that can help you.

The initial unorganized state of chaos could be overwhelming to some people. But, once you have the beginnings of actual order, memories might start coming back. Such as a sister looking at an old birthday party photo and immediately saying:

Oh look, I remember when she got that pony!

I was so jealous! I remember exactly three years later I asked Mother for a pony for my birthday because (our older sister) Emily got one that year!

And now, that photo of your sibling riding her new pony has a “date” correlation to the photo of another sibling getting her first pony. I know, this is an extreme example I just made up. How many girls really get ponies?

Or do they?

Write Out Timelines To Create “Tent Poles”

This goes along well with the last suggestion about ordering photos by how a person is aging in them.

If for example you are trying to organize a large collection of photos of your Mom, ask her to write out a simple timeline (outline) of her life in chronological order. Note as many dates as she can remember or you can help her recover. Be sure to list all major life events and the locations they occurred. Think of it like a “road map.”

These big “life moments” will be established now as these “tent poles” that are so important when you come upon photos you don't know where they chronologically belong.

My Grandmother travelled with my Mother all over the United States while she was growing up. They lived in many places before finally settling in Kentucky as adults.

For someone like myself who isn't good maintaining this chronology of “history” in my memory, having a timeline written or typed out is extremely beneficial in reconstructing someone's life in photographs.

Find Clues From the Time Period In Your Photos

I have few really old photos in our collection — I mean ones that date back into the really early 1900's and mid to late 1800's. But for these, identifying clues such as the type of photograph, or the fashion subjects are wearing in the photo, could be important clues in discovering when the photo was taken.

For someone like myself who still knows little about any type of photo before the film stocks used in the 1970's, research will show there used to be types of photographs called daguerreotype, cabinet card and tintype.

Who knew! Right?

Four ladies completely dressed up to go out on the town back in the 1960's.
This sure isn't the 1980's!

For example, if any of these are found to be represented in your collection, you will be able to narrow down a period of time when this type of photography was often used.

The same with fashion and clothing — even in more recent decades. The 1980's here in the United States wasn't the only year for iconic fashion! Other periods had their own stand-out identifying style you can be on the look-out for. Especially with hats and other decorative accents like jewelry, scarves and shawls.

Also, take into consideration the colors and patterns used not only in clothing, but also in the furniture and items throughout a photograph. These are often clues to help you pinpoint a date range of a photo.

little boy standing in front of a rattan-like couch clearly made in the 1960's to 1970's
That's little ol' me standing in front of a couch that couldn't have been the product of that many decades! Easy detective work here.

Seek Help From Outside Family and Friends in Your Photographs

Of course it's probably already occurred to you to ask your immediate family about the missing dates of certain photographs. But, you should also consider going outside of your safe “comfort zone” and get in contact with distant family members and even friends of the family that appear in some of your photos.

Now, I know you probably haven't spoken to some of them in years or maybe even decades. And there might even be a good and unspeakable reason why you haven't!

But putting those negative stories and police records aside, consider how much knowledge they may recall that you and your immediate family can't.

You could call them up — yes speak to them live on your telephone (read as “cell phone” for the younger generations). Or you could friend them on whatever social networking site is popular at the time or maybe just email them. And while the U.S. Postal Service is still in business, you could even send them a real paper letter! (gasp)

They may LOVE you for showing or even giving them a copy of an old photo they were in! Stories you had completely forgotten about might start gushing out of them.

Remember, a photo of a birthday party may represent just another party you had growing up to you. But to your cousin, or that oddly hairy neighbor who lived down the street from you that just happened to drop by that day, it might have been a life changing experience for them!

Everyone is unique and files away memories in their brains differently than someone else.

So don't be surprised if you hear something insane yet useful from your long-lost friend like:

Oh of course I remember that birthday party of yours! You were so cute then. You had that cake decorated like a choo-choo train!

And it was 1976. I remember that because my son had just turned 4 as well, just the month before, and so I knew exactly what present would be perfect for me to get you. It was popular at that time and so it was difficult to find in stores, so I bought one for both of you at the same time!

Start Organizing By Using Batches

After reading all of this, you too might feel just like Patty D. currently does — completely stressed out when looking in your one giant folder on your computers' storage drive full of hundreds of undated photos.

You probably feel like you aren't getting anywhere when you see all of your undated “misfit” photos.

Please know that, when trying to implement any of the suggestions I just gave you, just making small baby steps of progress now will feel like great strides at times later.

Just get a start.

You can do this by putting your “misfits” in small “batches” rather than by the specific years that might be your ultimate goal.

For example, if you can't figure out if a photo was taken in 1984, 1985 or even 1986, maybe a way to make it easier for you to organize right now is to store this “198x-xx-xx” photo in a folder or “Event” called “1980s Unsorted”. Then make similar folders for the other decades, just like this one, for the remaining “misfit” photos.

Or maybe you could break it down a little bit further. You could create a “1980s Early” and “1980s Late” if having 2 for each decades is then possible.

See… baby steps.

Another system entirely could be to make a “Mom” and a “Dad” top-level folder. Then inside of each of those, have folders to separate out your ‘misfits' like “Baby”, “Toddler”, “Early Childhood”, “Late Childhood”, “Teenager”, “Young Adult” …etc

Do whatever it takes, just to get you a little bit further along in organizing, sorting and labeling!

Get the ball rolling.

And if this helps you to know, I scan my prints and slides completely out of order. And then I move the photos around in my photo manager to put them into some sense of chronological order using many of the above techniques. I find this method to be easier for me because I am quick and comfortable with computers. So know this is a great option if you are the same way.

Others however feel better organizing and sorting their prints first before scanning them.

If I personally had to do it this way, I never would have gotten started because, like I said, our photos are almost completely out of order and my parents live 2,500 miles away. It would have been extremely challenging to organize the entire collection first without their physical presence and help.

Whichever works best for you is your best course of action.

So wrapping this up, Patty D, I am so glad to hear you have such a good start on your photo collection. I bet it feels good!

And this was a great question you asked by the way. It's a question without an easy and single definitive answer that will work for everyone. So, that means there are many people out there asking it. So thank you for asking me!

I hope some of this will be of help to you too. Likely some of this was obvious to you. But, maybe the way in which I wrote it out will shake loose something in your head that could possibly help you out even more..

And for you, reading this, I am sure these suggestions are just the beginning of what could help Patty and others out with this problem.

Can you think of any other ideas that could help someone organize and date their photos that I didn't mention here?

I would love to know your ideas. Just let me know in the comments below.

Cheers!

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