Tintypes: 19th Century to the Present

by Beverly Mosman, Assistant Photo Archivist

The last photographic method for mirror and unique images was patented in 1856 by Hamilton L. Smith, a chemistry and physics professor at Kenyon College in Ohio. Originally known as “melainotype” or “ferrotype” these images are more commonly called tintypes.

The tintype is a very thin plate of sheet-iron covered with a highly polished black or dark brown varnish over which a light sensitive collodion is applied. After the image is composed, varnish or shellac is applied.

Rust is the principle cause of damage to the tintype as seen in this image of a Creek Woman and Child (#21924.263 Fred Long Collection)

Sometimes tintypes were left without case or frame so that they could be slipped into an envelope and mailed.

“For this purpose each corner is cut off with a pair of shears, at a distance of one quarter of an inch from the apex, and the corresponding corners of the mat are folded or reduplicated over and under it, so as to form a compact piece out of the two.”(Towler)

Daughters of General Stand Watie, c. 1870
(Image #16978 in the Stand Watie Collection)

Even though the tintype never gained as much social status as the daguerreotype or the Ambrotype, the tintype process is the only mid 19th century photographic medium to be in continuous professional use after patenting. The process is simple and fast, so a traveling photographer could hand his customer the finished image within minutes. There was no need for glass, background, or any of the other layers that daguerreotypes or Ambrotypes required.

The above information was originally gathered by Chester Cowen, Photographic Archivist, Oklahoma Historical Society, from the following references:

Welling, William, PHOTOGRAPHY IN AMERICA: THE FORMATIVE YEARS 1839-1900, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, NM, 1978, X!, (3), 431 pages.

Towler, John. THE SILVER SUNBEAM. Joseph H. Ladd, New York: 1864. (Electronic edition prepared from facsimile edition of Morgan and Morgan, Inc., Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Second printing: Feb. 1974. ISBN 871000-005-9)

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