Best of Photo Detective: Tintypes

By Maureen A. Taylor
Vintage tintype photograph of a young boy from the 1860s–1870s. (Getty Images)

In addition to being a regular Family Tree Magazine column, Photo Detective was also a long-running blog hosted on our website by Maureen A. Taylor for several years. Here, we’ve combined some of her best posts from the past.

Tintypes, also known as ferreotypes and melainotypes, are actually photographs on thin sheets of iron, not tin. Sizes varied from small “gems” (3/4×1 inch) to a full plate (11×14 inches) in a variety of formats including cases, jewelry and paper sleeves. They first appeared in 1856 and remained popular until the middle of the 20th century. Even today you can find studios that produce tintypes at tourist locations.


How to identify a tintype

Tintypes are remarkable pieces of family history because they withstand abuse. Even when bent, rusted and darkened from age, these pocket-sized treasures are well worth the identification effort. Here are six clues to look for when identifying your mystery tintypes:

1. Cases

As with daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, photographers sealed early tintypes in cases. These cases came in a variety of styles, and you can date them by consulting books such as Photographic Cases: Victorian Design Sources, 1840-1870 by Adele Kenny (Schiffer Publishing) and American Miniature Case Art by Floyd Rinhart (A.S. Barnes, out of print).

2. Paper sleeves

The tintype was usually presented to a customer in a paper sleeve, rather than cases. I’ve seen sleeves in bright pink, red, blue and just about every other shade. Some have embossed designs like this one, while others have printed decorations. You can usually pick out images created during the Civil War, because their sleeves were often embossed with stars and other patriotic symbols.

3. Size

Pictures came in a variety of sizes—from 1×1-inch thumbnail portraits to 6 1/2×8 1/2-inch whole plates. A list of available sizes and their dates of popularity appears in The American Tintype by Floyd Rinhart, Marion Rinhart and Robert W. Wagner (Ohio State University Press).

4. Revenue stamps

Turn over your tintype to see if a revenue stamp is visible. Between Aug. 1, 1864, and Aug. 1, 1866, the US government levied a tax on photos. Photographers had to affix a stamp to the backs of their images and hand-cancel each stamp with their names or initials and the dates of sale. That date can help you compile a list of ancestors who lived in the right place and time.

5. Clothing

Unfortunately, tintypes are usually found without a case, paper sleeve or revenue stamp, so we must rely on clothing clues to date them. For instance, look at the shape of a woman’s bodice and sleeves, or the shape of a man’s jacket or the width of his lapels. Women’s fashion changed from decade to decade, so the design of a woman’s dress can help you determine when the image was taken. Compare your photograph to examples in costume encyclopedias such as Joan Severa’s Dressed for the Photographer (Kent State University Press) to determine a time frame for the picture.

6. Family information

Adding up the photographic clues is just part of the process of identifying an image. You also need to consult your genealogical research. Clothing, cases and other clues can provide a tentative date for the picture, but your family history research can put a name with a face.

Tip: If you don’t know whether you have a tintype, here’s a trick: A magnet will be attracted to a tintype.

Itinerant tintype artists

Tintype “snapshots” were available long before George Eastman invented his amateur negative camera. The word snapshot refers to taking an “instantaneous” image using a handheld camera. It generally means an amateur was taking the picture, but there were professional photographers who specialized in capturing these fleeting moments.

Itinerant tintypists traveled from town to town in wagons loaded with chemicals, plates and darkroom equipment. Tintype photographers also walked the streets of major cities enticing customers to memorialize their visit with a photo.

Tintypes were fast, inexpensive and did not require elaborate studios to insure a high-quality image. During the Civil War, itinerant photographers accompanied troops to the battlefield and photographed soldiers so that they could mail images home with their letters. They had the added advantage of being durable and the right size for mailing. A publication by Floyd and Marion Rinhart and Robert Wagner, The American Tintype (Ohio State University Press), presents an illustrated history of this type of photograph.

How to preserve a tintype

The emulsion (image layer) has a tendency to flake off. When you have an image with this type of damage, scan it immediately to digitally preserve it. It should be kept in an acid- and lignin-free envelope for storage.

Tintype photo identification examples

Here’s an assortment of past Photo Detective blog posts featuring tintypes:

Family Tree Magazine reader Jim Cat found this photo when his grandmother died, but doesn’t know who these women are.

The Photo Detective says: From the dress styles and the hair, the date of Jim’s picture is circa 1910. The short sleeves and lightweight fabric suggest a warm weather month. The woman second from the left has rested a hand on her adjacent companions, a clear sign these are close friends or relatives.

photo identification clues dating tintype
Barbara White of the Akron Library sent in this photo. White has several theories about who the males in this picture could be. The boys and their father could be from the Abbott, Carr, McNeely, Perdue, White, or Workman families in Boone, Kanawha, and Logan Counties in West Virginia.

The Photo Detective says: The wide lapels of Dad’s jacket suggest that his clothing dates from sometime in the 1870s. Whether that’s a new coat or a used one isn’t clear. The boy’s jacket doesn’t fit him so perhaps it’s a hand-me-down. The photographer posed them in front of a dark cloth. It’s an impromptu studio set up by an itinerant photographer. We can see a wall on either side of the cloth.

Look in the upper left hand corner. Do you see it? A nail. This photo actually has two dates associated with it–one when the father and boys posed and another when a photographer made a copy. The photographer nailed it to a wall and made a duplicate of the original. In the tintype era, you could pose for multiple images in one sitting, so why the copy?

Family Tree Magazine reader Kathleen Gannon found this tintype in her grandmother’s papers when she died.

The Photo Detective says: 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. 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.

Family Tree Magazine reader Leona Humphrey found this tintype buried in a family trunk with other unidentified, undated images.

The Photo Detective Says: I’ve created a collage of the picture and some interesting details in this photo of a mother and her four children. Where’s Dad? For some reason, he’s not in this image.

humphry collage2.jpg
  1. The fichu collar on the mom’s dress was popular in the circa-1880 period.
  2. Painted backdrops in the 1880s often looked like living rooms. In this case, the large piece of “furniture” angles towards the group, looking like it’s going to fall on them.
  3. Both girls wear pinafores and wide collars. The wide collars were also popular in the late 1870s to early 1880s. Pinafores stayed in fashion for decades. Flip through any 19th-century women’s magazine and you’ll find instructions on how to make a pinafore.

Also, mom’s hair is a variation of the frizzy bangs of the 1880s. She’s arranged her bangs in oiled curls on her forehead. This particular look appeared in the early 1880s. View more examples of hairstyles for men and women in my book Hairstyles, 1840-1900.

Family Tree Magazine reader Rex Maggert thought he knew the identities of the woman and the baby, but now he’s wondering if his initial ID is correct.

The Photo Detective says: The woman wears a cotton or wool challis dress in a bold pattern. The loose fit of the dress is common for the early 1860s. Her sleeves have drop shoulders and full gathers at the wrist. Big bows worn under collars also are typical of the early 1860s. It’s likely this woman made this everyday dress. In the 1840s, on the other hand, women’s dresses were close-fitting and the sleeves were tight on the arms.

Whoever this woman is, she’s married. There is a wedding ring on her left hand.

This middle-aged couple posed for a solemn portrait in good clothes. You can see that both members of this couple have blue eyes.

The Photo Detective says: This tintype was once in a case—you can see the mark of the original brass mat that framed the image. If the mat were present, it would be possible to study the design on the brass. But all we can see are the rounded corners of the opening.

The husband chose a wool checked shawl-collared vest. He tied his neck scarf in the horizontal style popular in the 1850s. He has a neck beard extending from near his ears to beneath the chin. His wife wears a cap on her head. A single brooch decorates her collar. While her clothes appear dark in this portrait, they may not be. Even bright colors like orange looked black in photos. She could be wearing a red dress or other dark shade.

There is one more clue in this picture: The man’s hands show that he works without gloves. On his wife’s hand is a wedding ring. Yes, in the picture it appears that it’s on her right hand, but this is because the image is reversed—common for early photographic processes. Not all photographers used reversal lens to make portraits look natural.

Obviously this man was important to someone in Family Tree Magazine reader Kyndahl Carlson’s family. This triple mystery appears in a family photo album.

The Photo Detective says: Most of us feel lucky to have one picture of an ancestor, but imagine finding three images of an identical person in family photos and not knowing who he is! When faced with three images of the same person, it’s helpful to arrange them in a timeline. A side-by-side timeline of images often reveals details overlooked when examining the images individually. What’s apparent from this collage is the expression on his face. He’s a solemn person with no smile and sad eyes.

In the second image, he’s posed between two men. The two men each rest a hand on his shoulder showing a close relationship. One could be the young man’s father and the other a brother or they could be other relatives. The young man wears a suit from the 1860s, with a velvet collar and wide lapels. The other two men also wear suits from the 1860s, but the tie on the man on the right suggests a date of circa 1870. There was a market for second-hand clothing, so it’s possible that the young man’s suit is a hand-me-down. He wears the same watch fob in both the first and second images.


In the last image, the same young man is posed with pants tucked into boots, no jacket, a fiddle, a pipe and an old hat. He’s ready to perform. Is he really a performer, or was this arranged by the photographer? Fiddlers often tucked their pants into their boots and wore hats, but not necessarily this style.

Painted tintypes

This is a particularly nice painted tintype. Photo studios often hired artists to enhance their pictures.

Who is she? That’s what Family Tree Magazine reader Karen Krumbach wants to know. This is the only tintype in her collection.

The Photo Detective says: The portrait was expensive. This expert painting wasn’t cheap. Her dress has a v-neck, rather than a rounded collar. She wears her hair down. The combination of these clues suggest a date in the early 1870s. This is a very special family photo. It was taken for a reason. The look in this woman’s eyes makes me want to know more about her life, too.

Related Reads

Record information about your family photos and keep track of your collection.
At a photo studio in the late 1850s, you could choose the style of portrait—daguerreotype, ambrotype, tintype or a paper card photo. So which is which?
Time can take a toll on old photographs. From humidity to water damage, here are our tips for how to fix your damaged family photos.

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