Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Research Tip : Revenue Stamps on Photographs Identify Time Period

Photograph identification is undoubtedly one of the hurdles that you are trying to clear in your family history research.   Perhaps you have inherited boxes full of pictures and sit and go through them, begging the images to tell you who they are...

In the Local History manuscript collection is a small photograph of a man & woman, unidentified, with the photographer name of Porter & Boughton, Decatur, Mich.  It seems at least that we have a location. 

One of the key components of photo identification is determining what type of photograph it is, thus narrowing down the time period by knowing the history of that particular kind of photography.  The carte-de-visites, a type of photograph that was patented in France in 1854, are small in size, usually measuring 2 1/2 by 4 inches including the backing made of thick paper or a card board.  By the 1870's, the carte-de-visite began to disappear and were replaced by the larger cabinet cards.  Based on this description we can identify the photograph in question as a carte-de-visite.

So, now we know where it was taken, and that it was taken between 1854 and the 1870's.  But wait, this photograph has another clue - an orange two-cent stamp is adhered to the back.  It reads "U.S. Internal Bankcheck," also known as a Revenue or tax stamp.  During the Civil War there was a variety of stamp taxes including one for photographs, a tax of two cents to five cents, depending on the retail cost of the photograph.

According to an article written for Family Chronicle magazine in September/October 2006 entitled "Revenue Stamps on Family Documents," usage of such photograph tax stamps was unique to a very specific time period, namely between August 1, 1864 and August 1, 1866.    "There were no stamps printed especially for photographs, so any of the documentary tax stamps were accepted.  The photographer was supposed to cancel the stamp.  Often, a pen cancellation or rubber stamp impression will reveal an exact date for the photo."

So, if a carte-de-visite with a tax stamp on the back is included in your box of unknowns, you can at least fairly closely identify the date it was taken, which might help you decide if it is grandpa Harold & grandma Maude or great-grandpa Hiram and great-grandma Isabelle.

Our unidentified carte-de-visite is shown below as our Nameless Picture of the Day.

Nameless Picture of the Day
unidentified man & woman 
Photographer - Porter & Boughton, Decatur
dated between August 1, 1864 & August 1, 1866
Can you identify the couple in this photo?  Are you familiar with the photographer's name?  Please contact us if you any information and we will publish it in a future blog.  Please include the photo's catalog number with your e-mail.