How to Identify an Old Tintype Photo

By Maureen A. Taylor

In part three of genealogist Darlene Sampley’s mystery photos, it’s time to take a look at another tintype.

The first post explored the identity of a blue-eyed blonde girl in a painted tintype. Last week, we looked at a pair of crayon portraits.

Preservation Note
A tintype is an image created on a thin sheet of metal. If you don’t know whether you have a tintype, here’s a trick: A magnet will be attracted to a tintype.

As you can see on the edges of this photo, 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.

Dating the Image
Created with a process patented in 1856, tintypes remained popular into the 20th century. 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.

In this instance, the clothing helps determine a time frame for the image.

This middle-aged couple posed for a solemn portrait in good clothes. 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.

You can see that both members of this couple have blue eyes.

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.

Let’s estimate that this man is in his late 50s. If the picture was taken circa 1858, then he was born circa 1810. Darlene should examine her research for a man born about that time. I’m hoping these details help Darlene identify this couple.

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
  • SaveSaveSaveSave