Tips for Identifying Authentic Vintage News Photos

1955 World Wide Photos news photo of Davey O'Brien

1955 World Wide Photos news photo of Davey O’Brien

Vintage news photos are a highly popular area of collecting these days, but many collectors and sellers have difficulty knowing if that photo of Babe Ruth, Red Grange or Greta Garbo is vintage or a modern reproduction. As you’ll likely expect, a later reprint will be worth a small fraction of the original.

While authenticating photographs involves examining many aspects of the photo, this column looks at how the stampings and paper tags (known in the news business as cutlines) found on the backs of news photos are used to date them.

Back of a 1927 news photo with ACME Newspictures and N.E.A. stamps

Back of a 1927 news photo with ACME Newspictures and N.E.A. stamps

Most news photos have stamping or similar identification marks on the back and occasionally on the front. Most stamps identify the maker or issuer of the photograph. This can include the news service, newspaper, photographer or other. The stamp often includes a variety of information, such as address, copyright information and terms of use (“To be used in magazine or newspaper only. Not for advertising”). The vast majority of stamps are in ink, but dry stamps (embossed/pressed in without ink) are occasionally found.

World Wide Photos stamp on the back of a 1930s photo.

World Wide Photos stamp on the back of a 1930s photo.

A company’s stamp can help date a photograph to a general era, but usually won’t give a precise date. For example, if a photograph has the old time ‘Bain News Service’ stamp, this won’t by itself say the photograph was from 1915 or 1923, but it will prove that the photograph is old, as the company went out of business decades ago.

If other information, such as the physical qualities of the paper and image and the caption tag suggests the photograph is from 1949, the vintage ACME stamp won’t prove that particular date but is consistent with a photograph from that time.

Especially in the early years there were many news services, large and small, including countless local newspapers. On an old news photograph you will occasionally find a stamp for a photo service or other company that you have never heard of before and that went out of business many decades ago.

Below are some most common US news and photo services. Use this list as a reference. Some of the dating comes from the book ‘A Portrait of Baseball’ by Yee, Oser and Fogel.

ACME, ACME Newspictures, ACME Photos: 1923 to 1952. Early on known as United Newspictures. Was bought out by United Press in the 1950s.

Associated Press Photos (AP). 1926-93. AP wirephotos existed 1935-1970s. AP Laserphotos 1970s-90s.

Bain News Service, 1898-1930s. One of the earlier news services. Founded by famous photographer George Grantham Bain. Many of Bain’s photos are snapshot sized. They can have either the Bain News Service stamp or Bain’s full name. All of his photos are old, and most are originals with sharp and clear images. Many of his photos have image titles and other notes in the image in white writing (written on negative, printed as part of image).

Central Press Association, of Cleveland, existed for many years starting in the early 1900s. Their stamp often includes the date, which makes for easy dating of their photos.

Culver Pictures Inc, of New York City, was formed in the early 1900s and exists today. This means the Culver stamp can appear on both an early and a modern photo. Culver bought out much of the Bain News Service archives, so many Bain photos can also have a Culver stamp.

Harris and Ewing: 1905-45. Famous Washington D.C. photo service. Can find their photos of sports to politicians.

International News: 1909-1957. Major news service, with many International News stamped photos on market. It made both originals and wirephotos. Also made a small number printed later images—ala 1950s photo of Bronco Nagurski in 1930s. These printed later photos usually don’t have the image clarity of the originals. As the International News name ceased to exist after 1957, all International News stamped photos are old. Below are the specific International News stamps used and their specific dates.
International News Service 1909-15
International Film Service 1915-20
International 1915-1922
International Newsreel 1922-28
International News Photo 1928-57

Keystone View Company, New York. Existed in the early 1900s. Also famous for their commercially sold stereoview photographs.

N.A.E. 1923-52. Synonymous with ACME Newspictures. An ACME photo will often also have an N.A.E. stamp. The N.A.E. stamp exists on vintage photos.

Pacific and Atlantic Photos: 1921-31

Underwood & Underwood, aka Underwood. 1910s-30s

United Newpictures 1923-25

United Press (UP). United Press issued news photos from the late 19th century through the 1950s, when it was renamed United Press International (UPI).

United Press Association (UPA). Another name for United Press, the United Press Association stamp is believed to only have been used only during the 1950s.

Universal Press International (UPI), 1958 – Today. UPI made originals and modern photos of modern subjects. However, UPI also made ‘printed later’ photos of 1910s-30s subjects, noted as modern by the UPI stamp on back. These reprints can have high quality images, as UPI had a huge archive of new and old negatives. These UPI reprints of folks like Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson in their playing days have fooled many collectors, who don’t realize UPI is a modern company.

World Wide Photos, 1919 to Present. The vast majority of World Wide photos I’ve seen are vintage to the image subject. They made originals and wirephotos.

Looking at the just listed news services and their dates of existence, you can see why some stamps will give a boost in price. While AP existed for a long time, collectors know that a Keystone View or International News Photos stamp assures that the photograph is old.

Some photos will not have stamps, either because they faded away or were never placed on the back. This can make it difficult to identify their source and even whether or not they are new photographs.

1920s Keystone View photo of Babe Ruth

1920s Keystone View photo of Babe Ruth

Sometimes a photograph has different stamps. For example, there can be a stamp for the photographer and a stamp for the news service he worked for. If a news service obtained the archives of an out of business news service or photographic archives, a photograph can have stamps from two different time periods.

With some exceptions, if there is a UPI stamp on the photograph without an earlier stamp or original caption tag, it is safest to assume the photograph was made 1958 or after.

If an address in the stamp has a 5 digit zip code, the stamp itself is from 1962 or after. The 5 digit zip code was introduced in the US in 1962.

Reprint of an early 1900s Bain News Service photo of boxer Billy Wells

Reprint of an early 1900s Bain News Service photo of boxer Billy Wells

If there are two stamps on a photograph and one conflicts in date with the other, the earlier date is the most reliable. For example, if a photograph was both a new UPI and an old ACME stamp, it can be assumed that the photo is from the ACME era. In fact, UPI and ACME stamps or UPI stamps and ACME original caption tags on a photograph are not uncommon. It appears that, after ACME and UP combined to form UPI, UPI placed their news stamps on many of the old photos.

If the stamp conflicts in date with an original and unaltered lunch bag brown paper tag, the paper tag should be considered more reliable. This is particularly true if the photograph’s general appearance is vintage.

Date stamps

N.E.A. stamp with 1921 date

N.E.A. stamp with 1921 date

The date and time was sometimes stamped on the back of the photo. A photograph can be much older than the date, but can’t be newer. A stamped date of, for example, July 7, 1920 means the photograph is at least that old. If there are different date stamps (which will happen, as photographs were occasionally reused for printing or recataloged over the years), the photograph is at least as old as the earliest stamp.

A vintage date stamp on a photograph is highly desirable as it is strong evidence the photo is old.

dated stamp from legendary Vogue magazine photographer Lusha Nelson

dated stamp from legendary Vogue magazine photographer Lusha Nelson


1934 Mel Ott Photo with the original brown caption tag attached from behind

1934 Mel Ott Photo with the original brown caption tag attached from behind

Some news photos have paper tags, often called paper captions, cutlines or bio sheets. The tags are usually affixed to the back, but can be found on the front. These tags are helpful as they can help identify and date the photograph. They contain a variety of information including the maker of the photo, the date and a detailed description of the image. Many news photos have both a paper tag and a stamp.

The original old tags on news service photos and many other old news photos usually are lunch bag brown paper, having turned that color with age. The older, the darker and more brittle. The text was typed or teletyped.

Teletyping looks much like typing but has a slightly different font. In either case, the printing is usually black, but also can be dark blue or purple. The tags were flimsy and easily removed and it is common to see the brown paper remnants from where the tag was glued. In more modern times, tags are typically made of white paper, but can be found in yellow and other colors. A few tags from as early as the 1950s can be the modern bright yellow, though companion stamps from ACME or other news services will confirm that the photo is old.

1932 Lou Gehrig photo with brown paper cation sheet, ACME Newspictures, NEA and date stamp.

1932 Lou Gehrig photo with brown paper cation sheet, ACME Newspictures, NEA and date stamp.

As the paper tags can easily be removed, and sometimes placed on other photographs, the tag cannot be considered totally reliable. However, for vintage news service photos (UP, AP, etc) if the tag appears to be original (typed or teletyped on brown paper) and unaltered, the photograph’s appearance and any stamping is consistent with the period, the paper caption can be considered an exact dating (+ or – a few days) of the photograph. For any news photo, a brown paper tag is evidence of old age. If there are the brown paper remnants still stuck to the back of a news service photograph, this is evidence the photo is old.

Click here to see vintage news photographs on eBay.

About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifacts historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has authenticated artifacts for major institutions, was a writer for the standard academic reference Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, and teaches courses in art authentication. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. He can be reached at [email protected].