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The 1921 Census & Family Photographs

By Jayne Shrimpton

On 6th January the long-awaited 1921 Census for England and Wales will be released online by genealogy company Findmypast. No doubt many readers will be keen to consult this vital resource, for general interest or serious genealogical research.

Importance of the 1921 Census

Historically the modern Census has usually occurred every decade since 1841, the most recent to enter the public domain being the 1911 Census. The significance of the 1921 Census is amplified by the fact that the 1931 Census was destroyed by fire during WW2. So this newly-accessible survey comprises the principle record of the population of England and Wales for nearly 30 years, between 1911 and the 1939 Register, compiled on the eve of war.

In this new Census, taken on 19th June 1921, we can view the personal details of some 38 million people, among them our ancestors and more recent relatives. Whether our interest is casual, or we are committed family historians hot on the ancestral trail, it will be exciting to officially ‘meet’ our great grandparents, grandparents or even parents or older siblings for the first time! The 1921 Census will also focus our collective attention on this pivotal time in history when whole nations, communities and families were still reeling from the events of the Great War (1914-18) and trying to rebuild their lives in a changed world.

Family Photographs c.1921

So what were things like for earlier generations in 1921? Viewing old photographs helps us to understand any given historical era and visualise something of people’s lives. Besides the numerous photographs that exist in British archive and museum collections, happily many private photographs also survive among our personal heirlooms, offering vivid glimpses of past family members around a century ago. Typically these include various types of image, from casual outdoor amateur snapshots to formal studio portraits and tightly-posed professional group scenes.

Amateur photography advanced during the mid/late-1910s and 1920s as more people acquired a Kodak Box Brownie camera, or other early box or folding/pocket models. Keen family photographers snapped away at everyday scenes and special occasions, generally posing their subjects outdoors in natural daylight (for indoor domestic photography required artificial illumination and cameras weren’t yet fitted with safety flash bulbs). In the early-1920s amateur snapshots were frequently set in the family garden or in the street nearby, their subjects relatively relaxed and generally wearing everyday clothes. Snapshots were also taken on location to record day trips and holidays, large gatherings of relatives and friends, even the workplace.

Snapshots of the early-1920s are sometimes presented on postcard-style card mounts: more on this below; otherwise they typically appear like contact prints - small printed images on thin paper. In households where photography was a major hobby they might be preserved in special snapshot albums and some of us may be lucky to own albums annotated with names, dates and places!
However, not all homes owned personal cameras in 1921: for many, a visit to a local high street photographer remained the usual way of commemorating special circumstances like milestone birthdays, engagement or marriage. It was also common for commercial studios to send representatives out to photograph auspicious events such as larger wedding receptions, or to picture elderly or frail clients or large family gatherings at home.

Professional photographs were still considered superior products in 1921: they were generally commissioned to mark significant occasions, intended to be viewed by others, and therefore usually depict past family members decked out formally in their ‘Sunday best’. Professional photographs were sometimes presented as large-scale prints on impressive card mounts - substantial pictures for framing or displaying at home. However the most popular photographic format of the time was the modest divided-back postcard mount with a central vertical line providing separate spaces for address and written message. ‘Real photo postcards’, as these were first called, became fashionable during the early-1900s, enjoying their heyday between the 1910s and 1930s. Consequently, large numbers of post-WW1/early-1920s photographs are postcard portraits.

Dating family photographs from the early-1920s

Some old family photographs were helpfully identified and dated in pencil or traditional ink around the time they were taken: no biro/ballpoint pen in 1921! But how do we date and positively identify unmarked photographs – ‘mystery’ or half-familiar faces and places that might bring to life the names and addresses listed on the 1921 Census? Recognising photographic formats is relevant (and don’t forget the prevalence of the popular postcard photograph at that time). If a photographer’s name and address is printed on a professional card mount, then potentially studio operational dates can also be researched. Otherwise we must use the pictorial clues contained within the photographic image itself. If we don’t recognise the human subjects, then clever detective work might help to identify any buildings or vehicles.

Fashion in the early-1920s

Ultimately, any photograph can be accurately dated from the fashion evidence, if you know what to look for. 1920s dress is the subject of many books: here are just a few tips for pinpointing early-decade clothing trends. Babywear was growing simpler, frocks around knee-length, worn with simple caps, while newly-fashionable knitted pram sets often combined matinée jackets and leggings. Small boys might be dressed up in picturesque velvet suits, but for play wore short tunics or comfortable knitted jerseys, with shorts. Schoolboys in school uniform teamed grey flannel shorts, jersey or shirt and tie with blazer and cap. Older boys advanced to long trousers and youths adopted adult three-piece suits. Men’s tailored work or lounge suits generally comprised jacket, waistcoat and trousers, the cut narrow in the early-1920s. Shirt collars were starched or unstarched, worn with bow ties or long knotted ties; popular headwear included wide, flat caps, smart/casual trilby-style felt hats and bowlers for formal business wear.

Girls’ frocks were generally loose or lightly fitted, sleeves often elbow length, hemlines on or above the knee. Schoolgirls often adopted gymslips and hair was either bobbed or worn long with a headband or large bow. Women’s hemlines were fairly long in the early-1920s: mid-low calf-length. Unshaped frocks or loosely belted suits were popular and diverse hats were all set low on the forehead. The helmet-like cloche hat was evolving and bar shoes appearing as the newest style among varied footwear. Hair was now bobbed, or the back worn long, the sides often cut short and styled into kiss curls. The best way to learn about fashion in family photographs is to study many images and I hope you enjoy these closely- and firmly-dated photographs from my collection taken around the time of the 1921 Census.

Jayne Shrimpton (MA History of Dress) provides a professional family photograph dating and analysis service:

Posted in History on Jan 01, 2022