Daguerreotype, Ambrotype and Tintype: Telling Them Apart

By Maureen A. Taylor

Last week’s post discussed Jay Kruizenga’s ancestor James Pennington’s dreamy blue eyes and trendy 1850s fashion.

When an individual visited a photo studio in the late 1850s, he could choose the style of portrait—shiny reflective daguerreotype, glass ambrotype, metal tintype or a paper card photo.

This is a key part of identifying a photo from the mid-19th century. If an image was taken before 1854, then it’s a daguerreotype, but if it was taken after that point, then it could be one of the others.

Daguerreotypes, introduced in 1839, have a distinctive appearance. Because they’re reflective, you have to tilt them at a 45-degree angle in order to view the image. Otherwise, the silver-coated copper plate is often so shiny you just see yourself in the plate.

Ambrotypes, patented in 1854, are on glass. Backed with a dark substance (such as varnish or paper) they look positive, but when the backing starts to deteriorate, you can often see through the glass. This gives the image a ghostly appearance.

Tintypes, patented in 1856, are actually on iron, not tin. Unlike a daguerreotype, tintypes are not reflective. While you can find them in cases (like the previous two image types), most tintypes found in collections aren’t in any type of protective sleeve or case.

Card photographs (introduced in the United States about 1859) are on cardstock and instantly recognizable.

So James posed about 1857, which means his portrait could be a daguerreotype, ambrotype or tintype. Jay’s cousin sent him the pictures digitally. When she photographed the images, she propped them on a dark surface to decrease the reflection. Plus, the image has a type of deterioration known as a halo, usually found on daguerreotypes.

I’m leaning toward it being a daguerreotype, but sometimes a digital image can be deceiving. We’re waiting for verification of the appearance of the original.

Photo Milestone
After reading Jay’s family history website, it’s pretty clear when James posed for this image. He married his wife Esther Inwood in 1857. Both James and his bride are dressed for the occasion.

Mysteries usually come in twos. The picture of James came with another. The woman is Esther, an ID based on other photos of her. The mystery is the identity of the girl.

Esther’s attire also suggests the photo was taken circa 1857 for her wedding. The wide collar and dress design are appropriate for the time period. You can even see the outline of her corset.

So who’s the girl? The couple didn’t have children at this point. I wonder if she could be a flower girl?

Esther’s brother had a daughter Sarah, but in 1857, she’d only be 4, and this girl is older. She could be the daughter of one of the witnesses at the wedding.

If you’d like to see a wonderful example of how to present your family history on the web, take a few minutes to look at Jay’s site on James Pennington. You’ll find everything from narrative to documents and DNA.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now