Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Tintype Photography: Civil War Favorite

Portrait of Young Man Tintype

Most people are familiar with the term "tintype" as a type of photograph processed on a piece of metal. Tintype photography became very popular by the Civil War in America and thousands of images were made in studios all across the country. The process, which involves developing the photograph on a thin sheet of lacquered iron, was so quick and easy that itinerant photographers traveled throughout rural areas, small towns and cities taking portraits of people from all walks of life. Very often a single photograph by one of these traveling men was the only portrait ever made of an individual in his life. Therefore many of the portraits show people in their "Sunday best" clothes in very formal poses. Sometimes photographers would add a touch of color to the images before the varnish topcoat was put on.

Portrait of young woman by J. H. Young, Baltimore

Oddly enough, tintypes were not made of tin. Often the photograph was handed to the customer as it came, snipped out of the sheet of iron. Therefore many of the images have no record of who the photographer might have been. Also many of the subjects of the photographs are unidentified. Sometimes a studio portrait might be placed in a sleeve, however, with the photographer's information printed, stamped or written on the back. The sleeves were often simple white envelopes with an oval or square cutout for the photograph to show, but some were printed with colored frames around the cutout or embossed. The Potter's Patent sleeve is very popular with collectors.

Baby in hooded coat tintype
The convenience and ease of processing, combined with the low coat and sturdiness of the photograph, kept tintypes popular through the Civil War and into the early 20th century, especially by novelty photographers. Although they were eventually replaced by photographs mounted on paper, tintypes graced many 19th century albums and were probably carried into the battlefield by Civil War soldiers clinging to the memories of wives, sweethearts, children and mothers back home. As a collectible, tintype photographs are still relatively inexpensive because of their durability and fairly common occurrence. They offer a fascinating glimpse into life during the Victorian era.

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