Intinerant Tintype Artists and Your Family

By Maureen A. Taylor

Jim Cat found this photo when his grandmother died. It’s one of those family photo mysteries—Jim doesn’t know who these women are.


I love the way the photographer captured four young women sitting on their front stairs.

Jim labeled it a daguerreotype, but it’s actually a tintype. The spontaneous pose reminds the viewer of a paper snapshot. In fact, 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.

The tintype was usually presented to a customer in a paper sleeve. 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.

What they all have in common is a tendency to deteriorate. If you own one of these early 20th-century tintypes in a paper sleeve, you should scan it at a high resolution—at least 600 dpi—to preserve the content.

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. Cat thinks these women may be family. I’m waiting for additional information to help with that detail.

Solve your family photo mysteries with these books 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
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album