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Collecting Ambrotypes: Vintage Antique Victorian Photographs

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 Women of the Civil War Civil War ambrotype Library of Congress.   
The Liljenquist Family donated their rare collection of over 700 ambrotype and tintype photographs to the Library of Congress. This is 1860's  Civil War era hand colored, or hand tinted.

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

An Article on Ambrotype Photographs by Debra Clifford, Ancestorville

     Ambrotypes (also known as "ambros") are an image developed on an early glass plate. They are generally placed in antique decorative wooden hinged cases (as seen above) much like daguerreotype photos or "dags". Most ambrotype photos found today are unsigned, whereby the photographer's name and whereabouts are unknown and lost forever in time. Occasionally at Ancestorville, we find identified ambrotypes with a family name handwritten on a slip of paper placed inside the case, or taped to the photo, as above. This is an uncommon occurrence, and finding an identified family ambrotype is always a treat.

The "ambro" is the next step on the photographic history time line, after the introduction and widespread development of the daguerreotype. In general, the daguerreotype is one of the earliest photographs, whereby the image is exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver. Daguerreotypes were introduced by Louis Daguerre in 1839 in Paris. The ambrotype was introduced in the early 1850's and had a short lived appearance before the popular CDV carte de visite photograph took hold.

Keeping in mind that a daguerreotype has a mirror finish is very useful in the collecting and identification of early photographs. A tintype or ambrotype photo simply does not have the mirror finish appearance of a dag, although all three processes were cased in early decorative wooden cases. Usually it is more difficult to determine the difference between cased tintypes and cased ambrotypes, although the thickness of the case is usually a good indication. Generally the glass plates of an ambro required the case to be thicker than the "thin" sheet of iron used in a tintype. Many and most tintype photographs are not housed in cases, but there are exceptions to every rule, including the possibility of someone interchanging cases at a later date.
Unidentified soldier in Confederate Ambrotype, hand-colored Library of Congress

Unidentified young Civil War soldier Ambrotype Photo in Union
musician's uniform and coat: Library of Congress

The daguerreotype, tintype and ambrotype all are early images with no negatives. In other words, each photograph produces a one of a kind image directly on the plate. For this reason, early photographs of this time period are desirable and collectible because of their rarity and their "one of a kind" attribute in the antiques and collectible world.

Frederick Scott Archer (1813-1857), born in the UK, is said to have invented the photographic collodion process of the ambro in the mid-1850s. It is believed the word ambrotype derives from the Greek word "ambrotos", or "immortal", although others say it derives from the first US patent held by James Ambrose Cutting in Boston in 1854.

The glass negative of the ambro appears as a positive, when placed against a black background. This background was usually a thick black varnish painted on the reverse of the ambro glass, and is subject to flaking off over time. We have also seen black fabric adhered to the back of the glass, although this is more unusual.

One side of a clean glass plate was washed with a thin layer of collodion, and then dipped in a silver nitrate solution. It was then exposed while wet, with a time for exposure from about five seconds to a minute, depending on the light. The plate was then developed or "fixed" as it is commonly called. The ambro image is seen as a negative. When it is viewed by against the black backing it then appears as a positive to the eye, as seen above. Another plate of clear glass was then carefully placed over the fragile emulsion of the image to protect it, and then the entire piece mounted in a thin brass or copper decorative Victorian era lightweight frame and placed in its protective wooden covered case, as seen above.

For antique collecting purposes, an ambrotype photograph usually has these qualities: a small wooden and latched decorative covered case, (as seen in the Civil War ambro above); paper backing in the case, and black cloth or paper backing of the ambro; the ambro image is an actual glass plate; A very thin die cut brass or copper decorative ornately embossed frame (as seen above); and a soft copper or thin brass border around the photo to hold it in place.

Ambrotype Sizes from Large to Small
(also applies to other early photo sizes, such as tintypes & daguerreotypes)

1. A double whole plate ambrotype would measure about 8.5 x 13 inches.
2. A whole plate ambrotype would measure about 6.5 x 8.5 inches.
3. A half plate ambrotype would measure about 4.5 x 5 1/2 inches.
4. A quarter plate ambrotype would measure about 3.25 x 4.25 inches.
5. A Sixth plate ambrotype would measure about 2.75 x 3.25 inches.
6. A ninth plate ambrotype would measure about 2 x 2.5 inches.
7. A sixteenth plate ambrotype would measure about 1.5 x 1.75 inches.

In general, Ambrotype photos were less expensive to produce than the daguerreotype. Their darker, and more "flat" appearance proved less desirable. They lack some contrast, in general. They were considered less stately, less dignified.

By the late 1850s, the ambrotype began to overtake the daguerreotype in popularity, although this was short lived. The tintype and paper mounts of the CDV Carte de Visite photograph overshadowed the bulky and fragile glass "ambro", especially as the advent of the Civil War approached in America. The need to send a "likeness" home to sweethearts and waiting family members without bulk and breakage became an immediate necessity in America with the war. Glass breakage in an ambrotype will simply destroy a one of a kind and fragile image.

For this reason the CDV became the photograph of choice and highly collectible, even in its day. The day of the ambrotype was over, a short lived though important process in the history of early photography. In general, the time period of the ambrotype in America is considered to be late 1850-early 1860's.

Ambrotypes are also often hand colored or hand tinted. Red rouge cheeks and lips, gold jewlelry, watches, Victorian era chatelaines, clothes buttons, children with red coral necklaces for health, pendants, mourning and hair jewelry are some examples of what can be found with small swatches of hand coloring. It gives a wonderful hint of richness to the image. Tinting became very popular and is evident on most ambrotypes we see today.

In 1864 revenue tax stamps were mandatory on "photographs, ambrotypes, daguerreotypes or any sun pictures" to fund the increasingly expensive costs of the Civil War. Finding a tax stamp on an ambrotype can date the image to that time period, and is prized by collectors. Often these stamps are "canceled" by a mark or photographer name handwritten in old dip pen ink across the stamp. By 1864, the ambrotype had faded in popularity, although examples can still be found with revenue stamps.

Overall, we see each identified Ambrotype on our site as a beautiful, one of a kind piece of family history, and with the added benefit of a family surname attached! The ancestors pictured in these early photos lay in graves across America and Europe, and await being found. May you find your lost family clues here. If not, we invite you to "adopt" a family business and do some online genealogy research on the area or name. We will happily add the info you may find to the listing. These spirits await being found by their 21st century families and historian friends. Enjoy and good luck!

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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