Identifying Tintype Photographs

Tintype photographs were popular for a relatively short time period, so it is fairly easy to determine an approximate date if you have tintypes in your family history collection. Tintypes were introduced in 1856 and were popular until about 1867. Because tintypes are as a permanent photographic image, they may still be in good condition if they were stored properly over the years.

Tintypes used a sticky liquid coating called collodion that was mixed with photosensitive chemicals. Collodian was used as a type of a liquid bandage by military physicians. It was made by dissolving gun cotton in alcohol and ether. The resulting solution was used to coat a metal plate that was already coated with black Japan varnish. The black varnish background made the negative image produced by the tintype process appear to be a positive image.

a typlical tintype photographThe sensitizing agent used in the tintype process was silver nitrate, which is also used in paper photographs that came after tintypes. The developing agent was pyrogallic acid. The image itself is silver, but appears to be white when viewed against the black Japan varnish coating on the plate.

Tintypes are easily identified by their metal substrates, which were typically iron or tin. In addition, the short period of popularity for tintypes makes it easy to pinpoint the approximate years when a photograph was taken. A few tintypes were mounted in hinged wooden cases with ornate leather or paper covers. Some are also found mounted in cardboard or ornate copper frames. Most, however, are simply found without any frame or protection. It is not unusual to find the sharp corners trimmed, as shown in the image above.

Something else that is somewhat unique with tintypes is that it is not unusual to find family albums with very small one inch by two inch tintype images mounted in the album. I’ve heard that it was not uncommon for soldiers in the Civil War to carry small photo albums with them with small tintype images of family members.

One thing that is very common with any early photographic images is the deadpan stares found in most images. This was primarily because early photographs required long exposures, some as long as 20 or 30 minutes. Subjects therefore had to hold a stiff pose for long periods of time. That is why most subjects are commonly found sitting in chairs or leaning on a pedestal. The stare was because they were told to stare at an object for the entire exposure period. If they didn’t stare at something, there was a tenancy to move their heads and ruin the image.

It was not uncommon for the photographer to use a device called a headrest, which was a U-shaped support mounted on a metal stand or the back of a chair to hold the subject’s head steady long enough to expose the photograph. The tintype image shown above is part of our collection and is unique because you can see the base of the headrest stand behind the gentleman in the image.

Although the heyday for tintype photographs faded in the 1860s, tintype photo studios were still around into the early 1900s as a novelty. The durability of a good, properly stored tintype photograph far exceeds anything you will see from modern photographic processes since the 1960s.