Nowadays, we take photos what seems like, well—constantly. Let’s head back to an era when photographs were rare, and an affordable form of photography first made Its debut. Tintypes, the popular “instant photographs” of the 19th century, could be produced in a matter of minutes at a price most people could afford.
Silas McConnell, a Cortland County, New York, general storekeeper, with his daughter Louise, about 1875. / THF278362
Beginning in the mid-1850s, tintypes gave more people than ever before the chance to have a real likeness of themselves—capturing unique glimpses of how everyday Americans looked and lived. Tintypes democratized photography.
Koohns family of Perry County, Indiana, about 1890. / THF289961
There is no tin in a tintype. A tintype is a photograph made on a thin, black-painted sheet of iron. The thin metal of the iron plate probably reminded people of tin, leading to the popular name tintype.
Young boy, 1860 - 1870. / THF126296
A tintype is a reverse image of the person or scene that was taken directly from the camera. (Notice the reversed lettering on the bakery wagon below.) It looks like a positive print because of the dark color of the metal plate it is on.
L. Hamberger's Bakery Wagon, about 1880. / THF278482
Having your photograph taken was considered an event. People got dressed up and went to the tintype studio in their city or town to have their portrait made.
Mother and daughter in front of a painted backdrop, about 1885. / THF278436
What was a tintype photo studio like? Greenfield Village’s will give you an idea. Built in 1929, it’s designed to look like a small tintype photographic studio from the 1870s and 1880s. A tintype studio had many windows to provide maximum light for the photographer. A studio was equipped with cameras, equipment to develop the photographs, backdrops, and posing chairs.
Tintype studio in Greenfield Village. / THF151617, THF122780
Most tintypes were studio portraits of one or two people. Photographers often posed couples with the husband seated and the wife standing by his side.
Woman holding a parasol, about 1878. / THF327828
Husband and wife, about 1885. / THF278380
People didn’t smile in early photographs—their expressions were more serious and formal. Early photography was heavily influenced by pre-photographic portraiture—people hadn’t grinned when having their likenesses drawn or painted, either. Having one’s image made was important occasion—it called for a more timeless expression.
Unidentified man, 1870-1880. / THF277876
As direct images, tintypes did not produce photographic negatives from which multiple copies of an image could be made. But tintype cameras could be fitted with multiple lenses, allowing several copies of the same tintype image to be produced at one time on a single sheet of iron. When multiple copies were made on a single sheet of iron, the images could be separated with a pair of tin snips and given to family and friends.
Tintype camera, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161617
Multiple images of a young boy probably taken in A.G. Metzger's photographic studio in Harleysville, Pennsylvania about 1895. / THF278490
In the early days of photography, the sitter needed to remain motionless. Any movement would result in a blurred area and an unusable image. A headrest cradled the head and kept it still during the exposure (probably about 10 seconds). As photographic equipment and processes improved, less exposure time was needed and headrests became obsolete. Photo studios also had special chairs with head braces to keep the head from moving.
Photographer’s headrest, used in Harry Patmore's Photographic Studio in Wyandotte, Michigan about 1882. / THF161050
Photographing infants and toddlers could be challenging. Some images show the mother’s hand, covered by a shawl, helping to steady and soothe the infant “off camera”—her arm would be covered by a decorative mat. If a child moved during the exposure, the image would turn out blurry. The tintype for the baby below turned out nicely—nestled into a chair, it was not in danger of tumbling over!
Photograph of an infant, probably taken in Indiana about 1865. / THF243420
The child in the tintype image below has been dressed in her best, bedecked with a necklace, and had her hair curled. Like this young girl, children were often photographed with toys—their own or perhaps studio props. Unlike today, having your child’s photograph taken was not a frequent event. For kids from families of modest means, just one photograph might be taken during childhood.
Girl seated at a table with her toys, about 1870. / THF278444
Some tintype customers—like this family—wanted their images enhanced with color. For an additional charge, red might be applied to give cheeks a rosy hue. Gold paint emphasized jewelry, buttons, or buckles.
Portrait of a family, with accessories accented with gold paint, 1860-1870. / THF277866
Tintypes—inexpensive and durable—proved to be of special value in the 1860 presidential campaign, when small tintype images of Abraham Lincoln (Republican candidate) and Stephen Douglas (Democrat candidate) decorated tokens, medals, and campaign pins. The use of photography in political campaigns was still unusual at the time—most campaign buttons did not yet include photographic images of the candidates.
Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas presidential campaign tokens, 1860. / THF101182, THF128085
During the Civil War, many soldiers had their photographs taken in uniform—either at a studio before leaving home or in the field by photographers who followed the army. Quickly made, inexpensive and sturdy, tintypes could be left with loved ones or slipped inside a letter and sent through the mail. These images often captured a soldier’s pride in serving his country—and helped preserve his memory if he did not return home from battle.
17-year-old Civil War soldier Frank Stough of Elyria, Ohio, a member of the 128th Ohio Infantry, about 1865. / THF277880
Photograph albums—introduced in the very early 1860s—provided a way to organize, preserve, and conveniently view photographs of friends and relatives. The album below holds “gem” photographs, the smallest tintype at ¾ to 1 inch in size.
Photograph album containing gem tintypes, about 1865. / THF278461, THF278566
Outdoor tintypes were quite rare until the 1880s, when a new, more convenient dry-plate process replaced the earlier wet-plate process. Even with the challenges that outdoor photography presented (taking tintype equipment out of the studio and lack of ready access to a dark room to develop the image), photographs of outdoor scenes became more common.
Workers and horse-drawn wagons at a sawmill, 1880-1900. / THF278450
Tintypists sometimes traveled with their equipment from farm to farm, offering their services to rural customers, who assembled their family—dressed in their best clothing—and proudly posed in front of their homes. In the early 1880s tintype below, the Webster family is shown in front of their farmhouse in rural Delaware County, Ohio.
William and Corilla Webster, their daughters Lucy and Clarabel, and son William in front of their Delaware County, Ohio farmhouse about 1881. / THF97629
Work gave meaning to people’s lives—it was part of one’s personal identity. Many people sat for the photographer in the clothing they wore while working, holding objects that represented their occupation. In the first tintype below, the men worked as plasterers. The three men in the tintype below that also hold the tools of their trades—typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith. The blacksmith had the most challenging “prop” to bring to the tintype studio—a 200-pound anvil on a wood block!
Plasterers, about 1881. / THF306586
Typesetter, butcher, and blacksmith, about 1880. / THF278446
Most occupational tintypes were of men rather than women—it was a male-dominated workforce during this time. But tintypes did capture images of those who worked for pay outside the home—women like factory workers, milliners, or domestic servants. The young women below worked in a textile mill, tending power looms.
Two textile workers holding spindles of thread, about 1870. / THF278406
For his portrait, the drygoods salesman below not only brought along “props”—thread, buttons, and fabric—from his retail establishment, but a “customer” as well.
Salesman displaying his wares, about 1860. / THF278414
People not only had tintypes taken of themselves at “work,” but also at “play.” This young man, dressed in his baseball uniform and holding a bat, headed to the tintype studio for a portrait. By the 1880s, when this tintype was taken, playing baseball was a popular sport in many American communities.
Baseball player with bat, about 1880. / THF94413
Group portraits were more complicated to capture than photographs of individuals. The photographer had more people to pose artfully—and then had to keep everyone’s attention during the several-second exposure. Images of outdoor leisure activities like the picnic below became more common in the late 1800s.
Group of women at a picnic, about 1895. / THF278356
Tintypes became less popular as new and better forms of photography replaced them. But traveling tintypists still found work at country fairs, summer resorts, and other vacation spots during the late 19th century—and well into the 1930s.
Photographer outside his studio, likely at a vacation spot or resort, about 1890. / THF146156
In 1901, Henry Ford’s family—wife Clara, son Edsel, and mother-in-law Martha Bryant—had their tintype taken during a trip to Niagara Falls, though the image itself was made in a nearby tintype studio in front of a painted backdrop.
Clara Ford and family “playing tourist” at Niagara Falls, 1901. / THF96764
Hope you enjoyed this look at tintypes. Don’t forget to strike a properly timeless expression should you meet up with this photographer!
Studio portrait of a photographer with his camera, about 1870. / THF122762
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
by Jeanine Head Miller, photographs, photography, #THFCuratorChat