|How to Date Rosaries|
To date a rosary you need to put on your detective hat and study the clues available. Unless the previous owner can tell you the history, you'll need to study the rosary itself. The following paragraphs offer some guidelines to help, but it's virtually impossible to guarantee an accurate date because rosary parts can be mixed and matched, and some styles remained popular enough that they were made for decades after they were introduced.
When you examine a rosary, look carefully at the beads, center medal, crucifix, and the wire or cord.
Just about anything that can be drilled or wrapped can be and has been used to make rosaries. Glass, precious metals, stone, wood, seeds, paper, flower buds and petals, plastic, yarn, and even hair are just some of the materials from which rosary beads are made. Because rosaries were made for the masses, the most common rosaries from any period are made from materials that were inexpensive and readily available during that timeframe. Wood and seeds are probably the most commonly used materials throughout time. Rosary beads made from synthetic materials are more recent. Gutta Percha, a hard rubber-based material that looks like wood, was introduced in 1843 and is a forerunner of modern plastics. Bakelite, a heavy and dense plastic material, was introduced in 1907.
Many early rosaries did not have center medals or had simple blocks of wood at the join of the beads. Heart shaped centers were popular, though you can find almost any shape. The French vision which led to the striking of the popular Miraculous Medals took place in 1830, but the medals weren't used for rosary centers until late in the 1800s. In the US, rosaries made through the mid-1860s commonly had simple heart-shaped center medals. Later 19th century rosaries featured metal center medals depicting the Sacred Heart Christ, Mary, or a stylized M. Toward the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s, it's common to find center medals facing "upside down" such that they would be facing correctly if the rosary was worn like a necklace.
Center medals tend to follow fashion styles from the period in which they were made, so it's good to become familiar with the style characteristics of Victorian, Arts & Crafts, Deco, and the 1940s, 1950s, etc. The depiction of the Virgin Mary on center medals has changed over time. Until the late 1950s and 1960s, she was depicted as a mature woman. In the middle of the 20th century, rosary makers began using a more youthful image and elongated head and neck shape. Many Marian shrines have designed and struck center medals depicting the visionary image of Mary associated with that shrine.
The material used for center medals is as varied as that used for beads. Nickel plated copper and brass have been popular for many years as have precious metals and enameling. Aluminum was introduced in 1827. Plastics and plastic flash-coated with metal are from the 20th century.
Crosses & Crucifixes
Through the mid 1860s, common rosaries frequently had simple crosses without a corpus. These crosses were often carved from wood. In the Victorian era, composite crucifixes were common. These crucifixes might be a combination of a wood cross wrapped with aluminum or brass, and a metal corpus. Metal crosses with a thin layer of wood or mother of pearl inlay were also popular and featured a metal corpus. Celluloid, introduced in 1869, was another popular layering material that sometimes took on the appearance of ivory, tortoise shell, or mother of pearl. Stamped metal crucifixes were also common during the Victorian era, including those which featured a crucified Christ on one side and a crucified Mary on the reverse. Like center medals, the styling of crucifixes often reflected the style characteristics of an era: Victorian, Arts & Crafts, Deco, etc. In the late 1950s and 1960s, a narrow plated metal crucifix was introduced to compliment the more modern depiction of the youthful Mary on the center medal.
Wire & Cord
Except for the obvious, it's virtually impossible to date a rosary from the wire or cord used. Rosaries made with synthetic cord or fishing line are 20th century; but, rosaries made from natural fibre cord or metal wire could be old or new. Wire bending and wrapping techniques depend more on the rosary maker than the date the rosary was made. But the wire or cord can still help establish that a rosary has age. Older rosaries that were used frequently have repairs, so look for repaired or replaced sections. Check where the wire or cord goes into the beads; older rosaries that have been used show a gunk-buildup from handling. Don't be fooled by surface rust and corrosion; it's not necessarily indicative of age. A new rosary that's been through a fire, dropped in salt water, or otherwise exposed to radical changes in temperature and humidity can develop rust and corrosion, giving it an aged look.
Other Clues to a Rosary's Age
Inscriptions usually include dates. While someone might inscribe and give an older rosary as a gift, you can be pretty sure the rosary is at least as old as the inscribed date.
Commemorative Rosaries were made to celebrate various historic events and anniversaries. Often, the center medal or crucifix identifies the date or event.
Soldier's Rosaries were carried by the men and women who fought in wars. Those carried during WWI and WWII were commonly made from brass, which was less subject to corrosion on the battlefield. Soldier's rosaries are usually small and fit compactly into a pocket. They may also include military or patriotic symbols on the center medal and crucifix.
I am a Catholic... In the mid 20th century many rosary crucifixes had the message, "I am a Catholic. In case of emergency please call a Priest. " or "I am a Catholic. Please call a Priest." inscribed on the back. Military rosaries tend to have the second expression whereas non-military rosaries tend to have the first. I suspect these inscriptions were introduced during WWI to quickly identify Catholic soldiers wounded in battle. Though you can still find some crucifixes with this language today, it was mostly discontinued by the late 1970s.