by Kay

Ah, the lowly tintype.
While they may not be as rare as an ambrotype or as dynamic as a daguerreotype, their importance to the history of photography cannot be ignored. Why? The tintype was an affordable method of recording history, and it opened up vistas in the United States like no other photography method before. You may know the term tintype by other names and there is a reason for that. Maybe you have heard them referred to as melainotypes or ferrotypes. Well, either name is ok to use. Why all the different names? In 1852 Adolphe Alexander Martin invented the tintype, but he didn’t patent it. Early photography was continually growing and reinventing itself. In 1854, a chemistry professor from Kenyon College in Ohio, Hamilton Smith, was working with a process he called melainotype – he patented that process in 1856. Around the same time a rival manufacturer, Victor Griswold, came up with a similar product which he had named ferrotype. When Griswold took out his patent in the U.S, he used the name tintype. In the United Kingdom it was still the ferrotype.

The tintype was a variation of the ambrotype, but instead of a glass plate, a thin sheet of iron (ferro) was used. This inexpensive sheet of iron proved to be less fragile than either the ambrotype or daguerreotype.

Now, let’s take a look at some of our tintypes. And, just so you know, I have no idea who any of the people are in the images. The most we can hope for is to establish approximate dates for our tintypes. Before we begin our examination of our tintypes, remember that we have the patent date of 1856 as a starting point. The height of their popularity was between 1860 and 1870, but tintypes continued to be used long after the 1880s.

The first tintype we are looking at is an earlier one and I’m basing that on two things: the clothing the people are wearing and the fact that the tintype is in a metal frame. When tintypes were first produced, they were encased in frames just like an ambroytype or daguerreotype. Later on these frames became paper. There were even special tintype albums created for inserting the photograph. The couple in this photograph are wearing clothing which can be dated between 1863 and 1865. She is wearing a dress with an obvious hoop skirt, her sleeves are narrow at the shoulders and fuller as it reaches her wrist. Her hair is parted down the middle and she is wearing some sort of headdress. She may have curls on the back of her head or that could be part of a headdress, it’s too dark to tell. The man is wearing a long jacket which was popular during the Civil War. Combining the clothing with the frame of the tintype leaves me to conclude this was taken between 1863 and 1865.



The next photograph is of a woman and a baby. As you can tell this photograph has been damaged over time. The glass was broken and there was some kind of grunge covering the frame. After removing the glass, it became obvious how much the glass protected the image. The left side of the image, which had been covered by glass, remained in pretty good shape. There is the beginning of corrosion where the image was exposed. This is also an early tintype. Based on what the woman is wearing – the bonnet, lace cap, and bell shaped sleeves – I would say this image was taken between 1863 and 1865.

The next two photographs I have grouped together, however I’m only guessing that they belong together. The reasons I believe they are a couple is because of the backdrop, the chair and the carpet are the same. I’m dating the photographs between 1883 and 1884. Those dates don’t allow for much wiggle room, but I’m basing my guess on the woman and her amazing bustle. For some inexplicable reason, the bustle was popular for a long time, from approximately 1869 to 1890. All through that time the bustle was constantly changing and it can be categorized into the early, middle, and late bustle periods. If you have a woman who is wearing a bustle in one of your photographs, you can come awfully close to pinning down a date. Of course, this all depends on how current her fashion sense was. She could always be lagging ten years behind current fashion styles. There are numerous fashion plate books which can be used as references, Godey, Journal des Demoiselles, and Revue de La Mode. Our woman’s dress has a high collar, fitted bodice, and a bustle which is high in the back. The sleeves of her dress do not have the little puff at the shoulder which became popular in the late 1880s and eventually morphed into mutton sleeves. While her hair isn’t as elaborately coiffed as was popular during this period, her bangs are frizzed. Men are a little harder to place in a time period based on their clothing. But I believe this man could fit into the 1883-84 time period

Now for some interesting images. The first one is of a man and woman and it appears to have been taken outside, not in front of a fake backdrop. The couple are leaning against a fallen tree. He has a bowler hat, which was popular in the 1880s. He also is wearing a tie, not a bowtie and the knot in the tie is small. She has a hat with giant feathers. Her bodice is fitted and she appears to be sitting on her bustle. I’m going to place this image sometime between 1880 and 1884, but because the top of her shoulders do not have any puff, I’m not placing it later. I’m not sure why this image was cut into its shape. Was there someone else in the photograph they cut out or did they have some kind of odd shaped frame? I guess we will never know.

The next interesting image is of a baby. The reason I picked this image is because when you look at old photos don’t take everything at face value. Look closely at the cloth behind the baby – do you see the bottom of a dress? Now look at the top – do you see the shoulders peaking from behind the dark cloth. I am assuming that is the mother standing behind the baby holding it up. Rather innovative.

Let’s talk a little about the traveling photographer. Once it was discovered that the tintype process was so much easier than the others, the business of the traveling photographer appeared. These people traveled the country, over land and water taking numerous photographs of people and the scenery. Some even traveled the big rivers and even had large houseboats with all the conveniences of a studio. Often they were called Professors. These photographers could reach people who were not able to visit cities where photography studios were available. This brings me to our next group of photos.

When going through the photographs I started to notice some similarities. Look at these three photographs – notice anyone familiar? Yes, the guy with the mustache and cocky hat is in all three photographs. And, I might add, with different women. Could mean nothing, they could be related – who knows. These three photographs along with a number of others all have the same feel about them. I suspect they were all taken by a traveling photographer, maybe at a fair. Notice in the one photograph our mustache man is seated in a fringe chair. Well, that fringed chair was a widely used chair with a sliding back and could be purchased for $15.00. It was widely used until around the late 1870s when it lost its popularity, however traveling photographers still used it. Those bustles the different women are wearing lead me to think these photos were taken between 1883 and 1885. And, the mystery of who the man with the mustache is will continue on.

Now on to the last image. And, who said our ancestors didn’t have a sense of humor. I know you’ve seen something similar at fairs and exhibits that are still around today. You stick your head into a hole behind a bad painting of a guy lifting weights, take the photo and everyone has a laugh. Well, I bet there are some interesting things you may not know about this “drop” cloth. There is a patent. Yes, someone took out a patent for the "Photo-caricature backgrounds." That someone was a man by the name of Cassius Coolidge, who also went by the name Kassius Koolidge and signed some of his art works “Kash.” The patent number is 149,724 and it’s a page long. Included with the patent is an illustration which shows just how to go about putting someone's head through a hole. The interesting thing about the patent is that in the sketch is a drawing of some kind of little animal, probably a dog. When Mr. Coolidge presented his patent, he also presented 158 drawings which were to be used and I am guessing that the backdrop in our photo is one of those. There is a patent number of 23 on our photo and a date of April 14, 1874, which is when Mr. Coolidge’s patent was granted. There is also that strange little dog or cat in this image. I have seen several tintypes with comic backgrounds and a number of them have that strange will animal in them. I suspect that the ones which have that particular little animal in them were Coolidge’s design. I am assuming a photographer would have to purchase copies of Coolidge's backdrops. I’m guessing that this photograph was taken between 1875 and 1890. Oh by the way, you may have seen some other famous pieces of art created by Cassius Coolidge – the Dogs Playing Poker series. You just never know what you’re going to find when you look at old photos.

Sources used:
Photographs Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Fiane Vogt-O’Connor
The American Tintype by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart & Robert W. Wagner

Hairstyles, 1840-1900 by Maureen A. Taylor
Bonnets and Hats, 1840-1900 by Maureen A. Taylor
More Dating Old Photographs, 1840-1929 by Maureen A. Taylor
Godey, Journal des Demoiselles and Revue de La Mode fashion plates
C.M. Coolidge, Process of Taking Photographic Pictures patent No. 149,724
George Eastman Museum, https://eastman.org/
PhotoTree, http://www.phototree.com/