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Collecting Tintypes: 19th c. Antique Vintage Victorian Old Photographs

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1890's W.H. Pearce's Algonquin Bon Ton Tintype Tent
1860-70's W.H. Pearce's Algonquin Bon Ton Tent. (Collection of author.) A wonderful early advertising piece for the traveling photographer tent of W.H.Pearce. (A Bon Ton is the same size as a CDV) See Dr. Cheney tintype photo below. 

...and click here to view 1000's of antique ID'd family photos on Ancestorville.

An Article on Tintype Photographs
by Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

The tintype, also known as "melainotype" or "ferrotype", was a real workhorse in early photography. The least expensive in their day, and the most common of all antique photographs to be found at flea markets and antique shops, tintypes are rarely identified with family names. The slick surface, of dark black or "chocolate" colored varnished iron, does not lend itself to handwriting with dip pen ink nor pencil, the prevalent writing tools of the time. The majority of tintypes are found "loose", with most having been removed from antique family albums over the years.

As time progressed, ingenious inventions such as paper mats (as seen below) became available, offering a more inviting format to autograph one's signature on the back. If the tintype is encased in a paper sleeve, identification is more likely to have occurred, although often these sleeves are tattered and worn. Many sleeves are a thin, soft newsprint material that does not hold up well over time.

In the early 1860's, a patented tintype sleeve of harder cardstock arrived. One prevalent example is stamped "Potter's Patent Paper Holders". Made of a white paper, and often embossed with stars and patriotic emblems of the Civil War, it was less fragile than newsprint, and held the tin type in place more securely. The "Cartouche" is a paper mat (or sleeve) with a decorative oval hole setting, cut for the image. When inserted in a cartouche, the tintype became the same size and format as the CDV Carte de Visite photograph (calling card photograph), thus allowing for display in the Victorian family photo album, alongside other same size CDV photos.

Tintype Photo ID'd Mary Patterson Baird found in MD
c. 1870's Tintype Photograph of Mary Patterson Baird in Paper Sleeve. Found in Wilmington, Delaware area, New Castle County.

In the Baird family tintype above, an old red & white canning jar sticker is adhered to the back, with the surname "Mary Patterson Baird" handwritten in fountain pen ink. This appears to have been written in the 1920-30's, probably by a daughter or son, or other family member of Mary's. For us, it was a happy occurrence to find a tintype so clearly and steadfastly marked!

Tintype Origins: The advent of the tintype photograph in the 1850's brought photography to the working classes. Professor Hamilton Smith of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (Knox County) worked with Peter Neff on experimenting with photographs on iron plates, using the principles of the daguerreotype. The first patent was in 1856. When introduced, the original name was "Melainotype." There is no tin in a tintype, only iron, and these early plates are somewhat heavier in nature, having been imported from Europe. It is thought the name "tintype" derived from them being so cheaply produced in comparison to the daguerreotype, which required a more expensive mirror polished silver to create. The iron plate of a tintype was individually cut by the photographer with tin scissors or tin shears, which also may have influenced its name with reference to tin.

Early on there were "Plate Wars" between Peter Neff and Victor Griswold, with the famous E.H. Anthony photography house in New York City first selling Neff's melainotype plates. Griswold called his process "ferrotypes". These two competitors came into being at the same time, and although there was no patent on the making of the plates, there was on the coating. Griswold's "ferrotype" generally has a thinner plate.

Note of Interest: Early on, tintypes were cased in the same decorative cases as their predecessor, the ambrotype and daguerreotype. The only difference with the tintype is that they rarely have a piece of glass covering them for protection as the ambro and dag typically do. Generally, the case housing the tintype cost more than the actual image!

It is sometimes difficult to discern a tintype from ambrotype when both are found in cases, and if you are unable to remove them for a closer look. They both are dark in appearance and hard to delineate from each other. A good rule is that an ambrotype is generally thicker in the case, as it is made of glass and cased in glass. The daguerreotype photograph is the only antique photo that exhibits a mirror image, a good rule of thumb to remember when attempting to learn about these early images.

Basic Tintypes: These tough little iron photos were very rugged, and could easily be sent thru US Mail. Many itinerant traveling street photographers documented Civil War Soldiers in uniform to proudly send home. They served as quick portraits of American families to send on with their "boys" to war and vice versa. There were illustrious railroad car, horse drawn wagon and riverboat tintype gallery studios which traveled the American countryside. In addition, photos were taken at local town and city studios. Please see our wonderful advertising image of the W.H. Pearce's traveling Algonquin "Bon Ton" Tent above for an example. American tintypes cost less than a penny to produce, and became big business.

1865 Dated and Canceled Revenue Stamp
1865 Dated and Canceled Revenue Stamp found on reverse of Civil War era tintype photograph. The photographer would mark or date it, this "cancelling" it in some fashion.

"Revenue stamps" were placed on the back of tintypes and CDV's produced during the Civil War to finance the war cause. The Wartime Retail Tax Act, which ran from Sept 1864-66, is a wonderful tool for dating old photographs. Congress passed this law to help fund the Union War effort, and wisely chose the new rage of photography to do so. With so many young soldiers away from sweethearts, family and home for the first time, photography was a means of connection on both ends. The new CDV and tintype photos were easily carried in bibles, breast pockets and card cases without breakage, which was so evident in the previous ambrotype and daguerreotype images which were encased in glass. Tax duties were collected on images in the US from 1864 -1866.

Starting around mid-war in 1862, the Wing Multiplying camera was invented, and became the most popular camera used by photographers of the day. It allowed for multiple identical images to appear on one plate. With the ability to now sell several copies of one image, the process quickly became a lesson in mass production.

Tintypes were quick to produce, so that a customer would receive their photograph immediately. The photographer would prepare, shoot the image, quickly develop it, tint the cheeks, cover it with varnish, and hand to the waiting customer. This was done quickly, easily and cheaply. After the Civil War, plate manufacturing primarily moved from Ohio to New Jersey, New York and then Worcester, Massachusetts.

c. 1890's Tintype Photograph of Dr. N. Cheney, Jamestown NYc. 1870`s Tintype Photograph of Dr. N. Cheney in Paper Sleeve. Found in Madison, New York, Madison County. This photo was taken at the traveling photographer tent above: W.H. Pearce's Algonquin Bon Ton Tent.  (A Bon Ton tintype was the same size as a CDV photo, 2.5 x 4 inches, and all the rage) 

Gem Tintypes: The "gem" is a small photographic tintype image about 3/4" to 1" in size, about the size of a postage stamp. They were cheaper than a CDV photo, and often mounted on a CDV size thin cardboard decorative backing, held in a small brass mat with a decorative prong setting. Gems were in use as political material for the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln. They were created by the use of a multiple lens camera which could produce many exposures on a single plate. Because of its small postage stamp size, gems lended themselves for use in photo jewelery such as pins, broaches, lockets and Victorian hair jewelry. Hand tinting of the small gems was in vogue, usually seen in a pink blush tint to lips or cheeks. A "gem album" is a photo album filled with gem tintypes, and is a beautiful invention. Gem portraits, being so small in nature, are unfortunately rarely identified.

c. 1860-70's Tintype Photograph of Hannah Frye Burtt

c. 1850-60's Tintype Photograph of Hannah Frye Burtt. Found in Wilmington, Delaware area, New Castle County.

Chocolate Plates, Rustics, Coney Island & Such: In 1870-85 "chocolate" plates were made by the Phoenix Plate Co., becoming a huge fad. They have a yummier "chocolaty" brown surface. The "rustic" look came into vogue at that time also, with fake fences, posts, bear rugs, stuffed animals, adirondack furniture, pretend stones and the use of novelty props for the first time. This led into to the "Coney Island" era starting around 1890-1900's, with amusement park tintypes being produced into the 1930's. These generally put the sitter into a novelty setting. Some photo studio props we've seen examples of are: an old car to sit in, a painted beach scene, a rowboat with oars, a faux painting of Niagara Falls as a backdrop, a board with head cut out to rest your face onto appear as a strongman, and many other fun and absurd novelty settings. These were fast, cheap, fun and easily produced for the vacationing masses, who greatly needed a day off. This was the advent of leisure time in America. Many of these are also unidentified.

American Tintype Sizes in Inches
(Note: There are size exceptions to every rule)
Full-plate=6.5 x 8.5 inches
Half-plate=4.5 x 5.5 inches
Quarter plate=3.125 x 4.125 inches
1/6 plate 2.5 x 3.5 inches
1/9 plate 2 x 2 ½ inches
1/16 plate=1 5/8 x 2 1/8 inches
Gem Tintype= .5 x 1 inch

At Ancestorville, we have over 50 identified tintype photographs on our site, all searchable by surname and county, and noted where they were found. They give us an invaluable look at family names, customs, naming patterns, nicknames, and genealogy. Each offers an important clue as to surname, and lost family ties we hope to reconnect.

Overall, we see each tintype photo on our site as a beautiful, one of a kind piece of history, and with the added benefit of a family surname attached! The ancestor spirits in these photos lay in graves across America, and await being found by their 21st century families and historian friends. Enjoy!

— Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

...and click here to view 1000's of antique ID'd family photos on Ancestorville.

debra clifford ancestorville Join ~debra on facebook at Ancestorville Genealogy on the topic of lost family antique items, early photographs, genealogy surnames and family history topics. Search our site for your lost family antique material by family surname, county, town, city and state.

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