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.