What are some of the distinguishing features of a CDV that can help you date the image? Fashions worn by the subject, certainly. Hand-written dates and identifications on the verso, yes. The photographer’s information on the verso imprint – often times with better known studios, the dates of operation at a particular location are known, so seeing a particular address would give you a window of when the image was made. Another clue is the style of the imprint – in the early days of the CDV, photographers’ imprints were little more than a name, perhaps a motto, and an address. Later CDVs (starting in the late 1860s and progressing through the end of the CDV period) have more ornate logos on the verso, a trickle-down effect from the more popular cabinet card.
When much of this information is not available, though, how can you tell? There are many CDVs out there that have no imprint, and no identifying information recorded. One way is through the pose. It is rare to find a US Civil War era CDV shot as a tight head-and-shoulders portrait. Such is the case in this image. A post-war portrait, you can tell first through the image composition. Next is his facial hair – while sideburns (so named after the Union General Ambrose Burnside) were around and popular during and even before the war, this beard style is later. The uniform style also has clues- the lapels of his jacket are a post-war style. I’m no expert on military uniforms, but with a bit of careful research, uniforms can help you date the image sometimes within a several year period if there is a particular piece of equipment or clothing displayed that was only issued briefly.
In this particular case, I’m very lucky – the photographer, C.D. Fredricks, is one of the best-known photographers of the period, and a very early adopter of the CDV format. I have early C.D. Fredricks CDVs that show just his slogan, “Specialité”, along with his name and studio address, on the back. I also have some that show his multiple studio addresses in Havana, New York and Paris.