Patriotic Clues: 12/21/00  
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Patriotic Clues
by Maureen Taylor

Kathleen Gannon found this tintype in her grandmother's papers when she died. She has been unable to identify the five family members in this image and is looking for assistance.

Invented in 1856, tintypes, as they were popularly known, were also called ferreotypes and melainotypes. Their nickname is misleading. They are actually on a thin piece of iron. Inexpensive and easy to produce, tintypes became extremely popular. Portable studios appeared in resort areas and itinerant photographers followed troops during the Civil War enabling soldiers to send home portraits of themselves with their letters. They had the added advantage of being durable and the right size for mailing.

This particular image is approximately 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches. Tintypes ranged in size from less than an inch to a full 11 x 14 inches. Called a bon-ton, this one resembles a carte de visite in size and shape and probably came in a paper sleeve. Its size places it within a time frame of 1865 to 1910, according to The American Tintype by Floyd and Marion Rinhart and Robert W. Wagner (Ohio State University Press, $75). Earlier tintypes appear in cases like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Unfortunately, the paper sleeve for this image no longer exists.

The location of the photograph is unknown. It was probably taken in a photographer's studio set up to photograph individuals at an outing. The flags suggest a patriotic holiday such as the Fourth of July. Although the lower section of the flag is not entirely visible it appears to have 45 stars. There were several changes to the United States flag in the 1890s. The 45th star was added when Utah became part of the Union in 1896. You can see a version of this flag at This particular flag remained the same for 12 years. Therefore it is possible that this photo was taken between 1896 and 1908.

The best way to narrow the timeframe is to examine the costume clues in this image. All members of the family are wearing summer clothes. A key element is the gentleman's hat. Boaters first became popular in the 1880s and remained a mainstay until the early part of the 20th century. His suit is hard to distinguish because he moved just as the photograph was taken, but you can see his narrow bow tie and white shirt. The woman is wearing a shirtwaist dress, which first appeared in the 1890s. The shape of her sleeve, which could help date the image, is difficult to see in this photo due to the murky background. However, the girl's dress has sleeves that are full on the upper arm and tight on the lower forearm. This dates the photograph to the mid-late 1890s. The toddler is also wearing a garment with a full sleeve that establishes a date in the 1890s.

While the costume clues suggest a date in the same time period as the flag, a specific date can't be determined from the clues in the photograph. Unfortunately, tintypes have a protective varnish coating on them that can obscure details in the image. To identify the individuals in this photo, the owner should make a list of family members living at the time the image was taken circa 1896-1900.

Find out how to submit your own picture for possible analysis by Maureen Taylor. E-mail her at

Maureen A. Taylor, owner of Taylor & Strong, combines her background in history, genealogy, photography and library science to assist individuals and institutions with research and project management. She is the author of several genealogical books and articles including the upcoming Preserving Your Family Photographs and the recent Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs. She also is project manager for, a site that lets visitors plan a genealogical research trip to the Boston area.

Her current book, Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, provides the reader with proven methods of photo analysis and interpretation. With Taylor's help, the mystery surrounding many old family pictures can at last be unraveled, enabling these photographs to assume their proper place among treasured family memorabilia.

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