Sunday, May 15, 2011


Ever see an item title on eBay like “CDV BOY IN A DRESS! OMG! WOW!!” or “ADORABLE LITTLE GIRL IN OVERALLS 1892”? Sellers should know: there is nothing amazing about a boy in a dress, and it’s extremely unusual to find a nineteenth-century girl in overalls or trousers of any kind. If you’re selling an old photograph and are in any doubt, call it a child, not a boy or girl.

To determine the gender of a child in an antique photograph, you have to remember that the styling of children in the nineteenth century was very different from the styling of children today. Before 1900, boys wore dresses and had long hair until they were five or six  (or older), when they were “breeched” (graduated to trousers) and got their first haircut (not necessarily in that order). Still, there are ways of telling young boys from girls. Think “Hair, Clothes, Props, Pose.”

First, if you’re lucky, a name will be written on the back of the photo. Don’t jump to conclusions, though – someone may have thought a boy was Aunt Mabel because he’s wearing a dress. (You also have to keep in mind that boys’ names included Marion, Shirley, Beverly, Evelyn, Vivian, etc.)

The guidelines I give below apply generally to photographs of children in North America and Europe. All of my examples are of caucasian children, but the guidelines also apply to children of other ethnic groups. Note: I have seen exceptions to every one of these guidelines, and I’ll show you some later on. Today, I’m talking about hair -- next time, clothes. 


With or without a name to help you, hair style is the most reliable indicator and the first thing to consider.
  Throughout the nineteenth century, girls wore their hair parted in the center, and boys wore theirs with a side part.  This rule was so inflexible that sometimes it’s the only way to tell the gender of a child. BUT THERE ARE EXCEPTIONS. (Below: boy, girl, boy; girl, boy, girl)

  Boys often wore their hair in long ringlets or curls, sometimes even with hair ribbons. If it’s parted on the side, it’s a boy; if it’s parted in the center, it’s usually a girl.  (Boy, boy, girl; boy, boy, boy; boy, girl, girl)

  Here’s a set of twins from around the turn of the century –Floyd and Florence. Notice the way their hair is parted. (Boy, girl.)

  Mothers often coaxed boys’ hair (not girls’) up into a center ridge or wave, which could be quite extreme. This Kewpie-wave was sometimes started when baby boys had hardly any hair. When a child’s hair was a bit longer, often there was a center curl tumbling down onto the boy’s forehead. (These are all boys.)

  Sometimes when a child was ill with a fever, his or her head was shaved, so occasionally you may find a photograph of a girl with extremely short hair, sometimes pulled tightly back, or a bald head. (These are girls.)

Coming soon:  How to tell gender by clothes.


  1. Wow, you have really made a useful study of this odd 19th century cultural construct... HAIR

  2. Those curls-in-the-middle-of-the-head pics remind me of the D.A.'s (or duck's ass) pompadors that would be popular on young men in the 1950's, and then again, and on young women in the 1980's (when I had one) How curious...

    Amazing how rigid the conventions were. But not surprising, given the moratlity of the day, which was very rigid.

  3. Mind you, there are plenty of old photos of children where it's anybody's guess about the gender -- especially babies whose hair was too short to style at all, and who seemingly all wore the same little white lacy dress!

  4. Fascinating! Interesting to see that the gender conventions at the time were relatively subtle, at least compared to the far more obvious differences we see today. Looking forward to the other posts in this series!

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  6. I'm always amazed at some ebay sellers. So many know absolutely nothing about what they are selling. I see them mistaking boys for girls all the time. I also bought a daguerreotype that was listed as an ambrotype for $10.00 - it was gorgeous and worth a lot more than ten bucks!

    1. Their problem is that they had a psychology course and listened to a minister who has Deuteronomy 22:5 wrong in his understanding.

  7. Some EBay sellers offering Greek male dolls, insist on ID these dolls as females, due to the frilly full pleated skirt! They just ignore the obvious mustache! That's the power of mass hypnosis! ("Skirts are FEMALE!") repeat 3,348,245,280,313,041,056,439,262 times every SECOND!)

  8. My grandmother was from Ireland and she told me that she dressed my dad and his brother as girls when they were young to "protect them from the fairies." Apparently fairies in Ireland would abduct boys but leave girls alone. She was dead serious when she told me that.