Portrait Types: Tintypes/Ferrotypes


Figure 1.--This American tintype portrait was probably taken in the late 1860s or early 1870s--judging from the lack of background and the quality of the image. Click on the image for more information on the boy's outfit.

Tintypes became enormously popular in the United States during the Civil War and the 75 or so years following, they were used to depict every aspect of American life. The most typical 19th century tintype was of course still the studio portrait. Tintypes were easier to make than Daguerreotypes or Ambrotypes, and the customer did not have to return for prints as with negative/positive processes. It was not the first instant process, but it was certainly the one more people could afford. Being easier to make and less expensive opened the door for a new type of photographer.

History

Tintypes involve a wet-plate process. This means that the photographic emulsion is contained in a liquid collodion. The wet-plate process was invented in Britain by Frederick Scott Archer, a silversmith's apprentice who became a sculptor. He used calotype photographs to capture his subjects, but was disatisfied with the results. He developed the tintype process (1848) and published details (1851). This was the first low-cost process and thus helped to make portraits availble to the general public. He subsequently worked on Amv=brotyoes with Peter Fry. James Ambrose Cutting introduced the Ambrotype to the United States (1854). It is from Cutting's middle name that the term Ambrotype was derived. This was quickly followed by the tin-type. Actually Frenchman Adolphe Alexander Martin seems to have first developed the tintype (1852). It was at first called the Melainotype process. "Melaino" means dark or black. This term was used because the iron plate was first painted with a black japan varnish before being coated with collodian. Profesor Hamilton L. Smith, a chemistry professor at Kenyon College in Ohio, developed the tintype process in America. He patented the process (1856). Smith then sold the patent rights to Peter Neff Jr., one of his students. Neff despite the patent encountered competition. Victor Griswold, anothr student at Kenyon College was also interested in photoigraphy. He opened a company in Lancaster, Ohio. Griswold used a very similsar process. The primary difference was ahinner metal plate. He patented his process udsing the term tintype. The British adopted a similar term--ferrotype. "Ferro" of course means iron. Griswold's process and thinner plates eventually won out. In Europe ferroplate became more common. The tintype was an almost instant process. It had several advantages, chief among them was the low cost. The use of an iron plate instead of glass greatly reduced the cost of the photograph. It was much cheaper than a Daguerreotype and even cheaper than an Ambrotype. It was also virtually instantaneous. This made it ideal for low-cost photographers such as small-scale local and itinerant street photographers as well as photographers setting up on a temporary basis such as at county and state fairs.

Chronology

The tintype was the first quick, inexpensive photographic process available in America on a large scale. The process was developed in 1856 and by 1860 was widely available in America. This was of course just in time for the Civil War. Tntypes gained widespread popularity as keepsakes for Civil War soldiers and their families. With the development of the tintype, Americans began to accept photography as an inexpensive alternative to portraiture. The tintype had one of the longest periods of popularity of any early photograph type, lasting from the mid-1850s to the 1920s, in the later period mostly at county fairs. Tintype photographers actually could still be found in remote areas of some countries even in the late 20th Century. The tintype thus covered a much wider range longer period than any of the early photographic processes. Unfortunately there was no place on the metalic surface to write any information about the portraits. This makes them especially difficult to date. Basically, all we have to go on with unframed tintypes are the fashions that the subjects are wearing.

Process

The tintype is another type of photograph based on the wet collodion process. Tintype photos just as the name suggests were studio photographs with the image prouced on a metal surface, rather than on glass or paper surfaces. Unlike the name suggests, however, the surface was not tin, but normally a thin sheet of lacquered iron. The sheet was normally painted dark brown or black. The tintype is made by coating an iron plate with a light sensistive collodion silver mixture. The tintype image has a similar appearance to the Ambrotype, which puts the collodion image on glass instead of a metal plate. The ambrotype process involved collodion negatives on glass, viewed against a black surface. Tintypes were also negatives on iron that had been coated with black paint, lacquer or even enamel. The basic principle behind both processes was that a collodion negative could be viewed as a positive image against a dark surface. As a result of this similarity, ambrotypes and tintypes can look similar. It is quite eassy, however, to tell the difference. Simply use a magnet to see if the surface is iron. The backs of tintype were lacquered to protect the exposed metal from rust and oxidation.

Popularity

The tintype had a number of advatages over other photographic processes, especially the daguerreotype and ambrotype. It was substantially cheaper and more durable. The tintype proved popular because it was such a cheap and simple way of producing photographs using wet collodion on inexpensive painted sheet iron (not tin). The iron was not carefully polished like the more expensive daguerreotype plate and was more durable than the ambrotype glass plate. The tintype was very popular with Civil War soldiers because it was less likely to break than the fragile glass ambrotype or delicate copper daguerreotype. They could also be slipped into an envelope and sent through the mail. Thet were exposed for less than the time to produce a dag, ambro, or early negative. They were both fast and easy to produce and needed no special care. The plate dried quickly as the metal did not absorb water like the images used on CDVs and cabinent cards. They were put into brooches, lockets and paper mounts as well as more traditional cases or frames. And because of its low price often covers working-class people that could not afford the more expensive studios. The metal plate was coated with collodion, sensitised with silver nitrate and then. A short development, fix and brief wash were then given, and the plate dried quickly as the metal did not absorb water.

The Image

Early tintypes were commonly encased in a paper holder or album. Like daguerreotype and ambrotypes, the image was easily scrateched. and the image is easily scratched. The tintype image had a similar tone to the ambrotype. Some tintypes were hand tinted. The images were far superior to what can be seen today in surviving tintypes which are commonly very dark. This is primarily because the protective lacquer has darkened. The image itself is probably much better.

Terminology

The tintype was first known as the ferrotype in England, appearing in the late 1830s. It became known in America, however, as the tintype. The metal used to support the tintype image was actually iron, as the English term suggests, and not tin. The reason for calling them tintypes is not know with any certaintyu. One account suggests that they came to be popularly known as "tintypes" in America because of the tin shears used to separate the individual images.

Identification

Although the tintype exhibits the same whitish gray image as the ambrotype, it can be easily distinguished because the iron support of the tintype will attract a magnet. (This test is helpful if you have never seen a daguerreotype and are presented with a cased tintype. Copper does not attract a magnet.)

Shoot and Sizes

Tintypes were usually produced in multiples at a single sitting, like the carte de visite, for distribution to friends and family members. A multiple lens camera could be used to produce up to twelve images on a single plate (as with the carte de visite) for efficiency. As a result the tintype was inexpensive, opening photography to an even wider audience. Tintypes are measured in fractions of a full plate as are daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. They came in full-plate, half-plate, quarter-plate, and one-sixth plate sizes. Tintypes frequently were carelessly trimmed when separating the individual images from the whole plate. This is partly because the case or envelope would cover the edges of the image. Many were done in sizes corresponding to the CDV, but as the cabinrt card became popular, we begin to see the larger sizes. And very quickly the ting pstage-stamp sized Gems appeared.

Reputation

Tintypes were widely considered cheap and artless by many photographers. And though it is true that many are, beautiful and artistic painted tintypes were produced, some with equally well-crafted decorative frames.

Types

Several types of tintype were popular throughout the life of the tintype. Here we are talking about the thicjness of the plate, coloring, and specialty tyoe, especilly the Little Gems. The earliest American tintypes are stamped "Neff's Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56" along one edge. The black iron support is of a heavier weight than later tintypes, about 0.017 of an inch. Tintypes of the Civil War period (1861-1865) are primarily sized one-sixth and one-fourth plate. Brown or chocolate tintype images had a brief period of popularity from 1870 to 1885. In 1870 the Phenix (sic.) Plate Co. began making plates with a chocolate-tinted surface. Photographers introduced tiny tin-type portraits in 1863. The very small portraits 7/8 by 1 inch (about the size of a small postage stamp) debuted with the invention of the Wing multiplying camera. They were popularized under the trade name Little Gems, but came to be called simply Gems. These tiny images were popular because they provie an inexpensive way of sending phitographs to large numbers of friends and families. Itinerant photographers from 1875 to about 1930 continued the tintype business on into the 20th century in what is known as the carnival period. These itinerant tintypists set up studio tents at public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. They came equipped with painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, beach, boat and other novelty props for comic portraits. Other tintype galleries operated on the popular boardwalks at beach resorts.

Neff's

The earliest American tintypes are stamped "Neff's Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56" along one edge. The black iron support is of a heavier weight than later tintypes, about 0.017 of an inch. Tintypes of the Civil War period (1861-1865) are primarily sized one-sixth and one-fourth plate. Often, Civil War-era images are datable by the Potter's Patent paper holders, carte de visite sized paper folders adorned with patriotic stars and emblems, that were introduced during the period. After 1863 the paper holders were embossed rather than printed. A tax on all photographs sold in the United States from September 1, 1864 to August 1, 1866 required the application of a revenue stamp. Continuous photographers cancelled the stamp by writing their initials and the day's date on the face. The cancelled tax stamps may be adhered to the back of an image case or an uncased tintype. Neither the chocolate tint nor the rustic look are to be found in pre-1870 tintypes.

Brown/chocolate

Brown or chocolate tintype images had a brief period of popularity from 1870 to 1885. In 1870 the Phenix (sic.) Plate Co. began making plates with a chocolate-tinted surface. It was said in a period journal, "created a sensation among the photographers throughout the country, and the pictures made on the chocolate-tinted surface soon became the rage".

Rustic theme

In the 1870s the "rustic" theme made its debut in studio photography offering painted backgrounds, fake stones, wood fences and rural props. These trend tended to follow those of the more common cabinet card portraits. Generally speaking the tin-type portrait settings are less elborate because they tend to be lower-cost studios.

Tiny portraits: Little Gems

Photographers introduced tiny tin-type portraits in 1863. The very small portraits 7/8 by 1 inch (about the size of a small postage stamp) debuted with the invention of the Wing multiplying camera. They were popularized under the trade name Little Gems, but came to be called simply Gems. These tiny images were popular because they provie an inexpensive way of sending phitographs to large numbers of friends and families. They were also just the right sizes for lockets or similar jewelry items holding small photographs. Special Gem galleries soon appeared and flourished for several decades. The Gem image brought the price for a photograph to an all time low. Often imprints found on carte de visite backs will indicate they were made in a Gem studio, but the carte de visite is not a Gem image. Most photographers were required to offer a versatile range of services and images types to stay in business. Gem portraits were stored in special albums that held one image per page. Also, larger albums were made that held several of the small images per page, perhaps holding as many as a hundred portraits. These These tiny images had many uses and the substantial metal surface was actually useful in the mounting. Gems were easily cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, tiepins, rings and even garter clasps. Gems began to decline about 1890, when the introduction of family cameras made began to make visits to studios that specialized in the tiny likenesses or card mounted photographsless necessary. The appearance of the simple Kodak Brownie (1900) was the final stp in this process.

Carnival/boardwalk period

Itinerant photographers from 1875 to about 1930 continued the tintype business on into the 20th century in what is known as the carnival period. These itinerant tintypists set up studio tents at public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. They came equipped with painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, beach, boat and other novelty props for comic portraits. Other tintype galleries operated on the popular boardwalks at beach resorts.

Varnish

Many old tintypes appear dark. This is primarily because photographers commonly coated the surface of iron tintypes with varnish to protect the surface. As these tintype aged, this varnish has a tendency to darken. Scans of such tintypes can be corrected, but if the varnish has darkened sufficently, it ofren is not possible to bring out all the details.

Cases and Framing

Early tintypes were placed in the leather or plastic (thermomolded) cases used for ambrotypes and daguerotypes. This was presumably done as it was the standard way to prepare photographic portraits at the time. Daguerreotypes were expensive and easily damaged. Thus it was a practical approach. When negative formats became available in the 1860s, Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes along with their cases went out of fashion. Unlike these two photographic types, however, tin-types did not disappear. This shift can help date early tin-types. Those with cases were probably taken in the late-1850s or early 60s. Some tintypes may be seen loose in their gilt frames (image packet) either to reduce cost or taken from cases. As the tintype customer demanded lower prices, the cases were dropped in favor paper folders the same size as the popular card photographs (carte de visite) because the case cost more than the finished photograph. Some were decorated with patriotic themes like Potter's Patent paper envelopes. Instead of a glass cover, the tintype image was given a quick coat of Japan Black lacquer (varnish) to protect the image and any applied tints. A German reader writes, "These cased pictures are beautiful. Seems they have have been more common in the United States. I rarely see them here."

Country Trends

The wet place process was first developed in Britain (1851). The tintype itself using this process was developed in France (1852). American researchers developed the process (1856). Thus by the mid-1850s we begin to see tintypes in both America and Europe. The number of tintypes seem to be much larger in America than Europe, although we still have limited information, esoecially on European countries. Most of the tintypes we have found are American. We have found a few European tintypes, but no very little about the popularity of the process in the various European countries. We have some limited information on Germany.

Cost

Tintypes were a popular and inexpensive alternative to the carte de visite image. They mounted a regular tintype sandwiched in a stiff card mount with a window cut in the front for viewing the image. Tintypes were lighter and much less costly to manufacture than daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. The average price from the inception of the process in 1856 until its fade­out was 10 cents to 25 cents for an image about the size of a playing card. Sometimes referred to as "The penny picture that elected a president". The tintype sold for a penny or less, making photography universally available.

Itinerant Photographers

The simplicity of the process and low cost of materials made it possible for individuals to start up a basic photographic business. This was often the case for street photographers and itinerant rural photographers. These individuals did not have to open up an expensive studio, Photography became a possibility for the isolated farmer as itinerant photographers spread out over the countryside. And in big cities working class people could afford a tintype image. Many itinerate photographers set up makeshift xtudios at beaches, fairs, and carnivals. A good example of a tin type of an American boy probably taken at a fair or carnival in the 1880s.

Tinting

Very often the tintype image was tinted, giving it a more lifelike quality than the monochrome image could offer. Tints were added to cheeks, lips, jewelry and buttons. People were not ready to accept a photograph for what it was, but wanted it to imitate painting. Many miniature painters left their dying trade to become colorists. It was easier to apply tints to a tintype than daguerreotype because of the difficulty of applying pigments. Some painted tintypes are elaborate examples of the decorative arts.

Restoration

Tin Types are damaged by chipping, flaking, bending and stains. Eventually Tin Types can turn solid black, making restoration impossible.

Image Quality

American tintypes were normally made in a large enough size to see some detail. The tintype process was an inexpensive photographic process. It was a process commonly used by itinerant photographers. The makeshift facilities commonly used by these itinerate photographers resulted in generally low-quality images. Established studios did not normally use the tintype process. An exception was when a client wanted the small 'gem' tintype images described above. Even though the tintype was a not as good an image as a proper studio carte de viste or cabinent portrait, they were still made in large quantities. Not only were they inexpensive, but the itinerate photographers set up in convient places like beaches or fairs or actually came to isolated rural areas. The low cost and convenience compensated for the quality.

Preservation

Tintypes should be stored in a cool, dark location. There are a range of problems that can affect tintypes. Probably the most common is that the lacquer used to protect the image has darkened. Measures to restore tintypes are limited and the amateur can easily cause more problems. It is probably best to consult a conservator. For display purposes, the tintype should probably be copied. Photocopies using a blue lens will often yield good results. Digital copies can often be used to lighten the image and enhance the contrast because many surviving tintypes can be very dark.

Archive

Quite a number of tin types are archived on HBC. Some are in fancy and expensive cases. Some are just loose pieces of metal. Another example is an unidentified double portrait union case, we believe from Maine and was probably taken about 1860. You don't see tin-types like these in ornate cases much after the early 1860s.






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Created: January 21, 2001
Last updated: 2:04 AM 10/17/2012