A Photograph for the Masses
The tintype photograph saw more uses and captured a wider variety of settings and subjects than any other photographic type. It’s like the elderly grandfather that saw everything. It was introduced while the daguerreotype was still popular, though its primary competition would have been the ambrotype.
The tintype saw the Civil War come and go, documenting the individual soldier and horrific battle scenes. It captured scenes from the Wild West, as it was easy to produce by itinerate photographers working out of covered wagons.
It began losing artistic and commercial ground to higher quality albumen prints on paper in the mid-1860s, yet survived for well over another 40 years, living mostly as a carnival novelty.
Is My Image a Tintype?
The tintype is very easy to identify if it is loose or in a simple sleeve. It is a thin iron sheet. However, it is frequently confused with an ambrotype if it is in a case. Earliest examples of tintypes were cased just like ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Cases were used into the early 1860s. But the price of the tintype was dropping so quickly, that the case was far more expensive than the actual photograph. Soon paper sleeves or envelopes replaced the case.
SPECIAL NOTE: Do not try to clean the face of a tintype. Even the softest camera lens brush will scratch the delicate surface. At best use compressed air to remove loose dust or particles. See the Restoration section for more.
Components of a Tintype
Very early examples of the tintype used the same pieces and methods for packaging used for ambrotypes. The mat and preserver characteristics described for ambrotypes is applicable to tintypes. See the ambrotype page.
Most tintypes are found today as loose pictures. Many of the paper envelopes and sleeves that originally held the pictures have not survived. The exception is the smaller images, 1/9th plates and gem sizes, that were taped into window-like holders. These became popular in the mid-1860s.
Packaging: Cases, Sleeves, Loose, or Albums
Tintypes were packaged in cases up to the very early 1860s. Cartouche cards appeared in about 1863. These were thin cards with a window, usually oval, cut out, with an ornate design printed simulating a picture frame. These were only popular for a few years and were seldom used after 1866.
Embossed window frames were popular during the civil war, first patented in 1865 and were used into the early 1870s.
Carnival tintypes were popular throughout the 1890s. These usually show people in festive or posed settings, and may be in a colorful sleeve.
Most tintypes are found loose today, because their paper sleeves have deteriorated or they were removed from albums.
Plate Size and Color
Brown or 'chocolate' plates as they were known were introduced in 1870. They have a distinct hue, though some may be subtle as there were three different tints available.
Clothes and Styles
Since the tintype lived a long and varied life, clothes and personal styles can be taken into account to help date a picture.
See the Gallery of 1,000 Images for a collection of dated Tintypes. Click here: Tintype Gallery
Browse through the broader category of the 1860s and 1870s also to see more personal styles, even though the image may be a CDV. The CDV and tintype overlapped during these eras as serious portrait photography.