Last month, we explored one of the world’s oldest photographic formats, the daguerreotype, and the creation process behind it. See the post here. Today, we are going to look at a second, even more wide-spread format, which arrived at the tail end of the daguerreotype’s lifespan and quickly supplanted it.
More commonly known as the “tintype,” ferrotypes (originally called “melainotypes”) arrived on the scene around 1853, having been invented by yet another French photographer, Adolphe-Alexandre Martin. Patents began springing up in America and the UK around 1856. The process was faster and more accessible to amateur photographers than any of its predecessors, so the format’s popularity exploded in the 1860s and 1870s. Rather than dying out at the end of this period, however, when albumen prints took the center stage of mainstream photography, tintypes remained souvenir staples at fairs and carnivals well into the 20th century – a kind of predecessor to more recent polaroids or photo booths. Within the past decade, beginning around 2012, they have also undergone a revival as an alternative form of art photography. See articles here and here for some cool examples.
But let’s back up a little. What exactly does this process look like?
In learning how to identify a daguerreotype, you may recall that I mentioned a format called an ambrotype, which comprises a glass negative displayed against a black backdrop to create the illusion of a positive image. The concept behind tintype photography draws on this same principle, and indeed incorporates elements of the same “wet collodion” process. You can learn more about the wet collodion process from this Getty Museum video, which provides a demonstration, as well as historical context:
Unlike a glass plate negative, however, the black backdrop against which a tintype negative displays is burned into a thin sheet of iron, over which the photographer directly applies a layer of emulsion. After exposure and development, the photographer then seals the plate with varnish, thereby permanently binding the negative image in the emulsion to the blackened iron that renders it positive.
An interesting sidenote, then, is that “tintype,” while much catchier than “ferrotype,” is technically a misnomer, despite the cheap, “tinny” feel of the finished product, as there is no actual tin involved at any stage of development.
The Kalamazoo Museum in Michigan created a video that demonstrates the tintype process specifically. You can view it here:
The format’s durability was undoubtedly its biggest selling point. While daguerreotypes and glass plate negatives require bulky cases and delicate handling, a tintype can (more-or-less) safely be displayed in any or no case at all. Many were originally framed in flimsy cardboard or paper-mache mattings.
They could also be mailed or carried around in someone’s pocket, as most were small, clocking in around 3-4 inches tall on average (though, as you’ll see below, we have one 6-inch tall example in the archives).
Additionally, tintypes could be developed very quickly, which meant that roadside photographers began to pop up all over cities and carnivals, eager to snap someone’s picture for a fee. A number of surviving photographs from the Civil War era, particularly portraits of field soldiers, were tintypes for this same reason.
Unfortunately, none of the photographs from our collection feature Civil War portraits or combat scenes. But you can see a number of these online through the Library of Congress website: https://www.loc.gov/collections/civil-war/?fa=subject:tintypes
The tintypes in our ISU archives primarily feature local alumni from the mid-1880s.
These are congregated into a small teaching collection, rather than associated with an RS collection, and, if you would like to view them, you will need to ask the staff at our front desk to look for the “Tintypes” box in range 309.
That said, if you are interested in this format, you should definitely come visit us sometime! Our reading room is open Monday-Friday from 9-5.