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History of Tintype Portraits

History of Tintype Portraits
Wikimedia Commons

Tintype photography falls between the invention of the daguerreotype in 1833 and the introduction of rolled film in 1888. In the mid-19th century, the tintype provided an inexpensive technology for the masses to capture their loved ones on film. Tintypes were wildly popular for just a few decades, but remained in use until the 1950s.

What is Tintype?

A tintype -- also known as a ferrotype -- is an image produced on a thin metallic sheet that is not actually tin but coated iron. The name "tintype" may refer to the tin snips used to cut the sheets apart. Or the name may have generically referred to a cheap metal -- anything other than silver. A tintype is a form of ambrotype, which is an under-exposed negative that appears as a positive image when placed on top of a dark background. Tintypes were a major step forward from glass plate negatives, which were fragile and more time-consuming to produce.


Adolphe Alexandre Martin of France invented the tintype process in 1853. Tintypes were extremely popular among Civil War soldiers, who loved to have their pictures taken in uniform to send back home. Tintypes were also commonly used to photograph the dead, a practice that was popular throughout the 19th century. Itinerant photographers would make tintypes from their tents or horse-drawn wagons. Town photographers used them in their photo parlors.


To create a tintype, the photographer coated the metal plate in collodion or gelatin and other chemicals. He would allow the plate to dry until it just became tacky. Next he dipped the plate into silver nitrate. The photographer had to take the picture before the plate dried completely. It took about five seconds of exposure, so photographers often provided a headrest for portrait sittings to help the subject remain still. The tintype was then mounted and coated with varnish before being presented to the customer. The image on a tintype appears "backward" because it is a negative. Objects held in the right hand appear to be held in the left, as if looking into a mirror.


Tintypes were sturdier than ambrotypes, so they could be mailed or mounted in an album, yet they were thin enough to be cut into smaller shapes for brooches or lockets. Tintypes were also less expensive to produce than other technologies available at the time, making them more affordable for the working class. Before tintypes, only the wealthy were able to create images of their cherished friends and loved ones.


Tintypes were typically produced in a size known as "carte-de-visite" which was 2¼ inches wide and 3½ inches tall. Larger and smaller sizes were also produced. A tiny postage stamp size called "Little Gem" was also popular.


Gelatin emulsion dry plates began to replace the tintype in the 1880s. However, the process was still used by some photographers until the 1950s. Later, Polaroid instant film and 35mm film completely transformed the photography industry, and the tintype was no longer used.

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