Nailed It: The Case of the Mysterious Tintype

By Maureen A. Taylor

photo identification clues dating tintype

There is so much to love about this tintype!

Barbara White of the Akron Library owns it. Their Special Collections librarian suggested she send it to me. I’m glad she did!

Barbara 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.

According to Barbara, most of the families were subsistence farmer and miners. Not individuals with a lot of spare cash for a family portrait. Tintypes weren’t very expensive though. A nickel would get you a picture.

Picture clues

We can see it’s a man in a bowler hat smoking what looks to be a cigar. His two barefooted sons sit in front of him. One wears a jacket and the other has suspenders. That’s the basic information.

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.

The boy on the left could be a young teen while his brother is a bit younger. Armed with this information, I’m hoping Barbara can use the 1870 and 1880 census to narrow down possible subjects.

photo identification clues dating tintype

The Odd Thing

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. In the tintype era, you could pose for multiple images in one sitting, so why the copy?

The photographer nailed it to a wall and made a duplicate of the original. It’s a curious bit of photo history, but unfortunately not one that helps Barbara identify who’s who.

Editor’s Book Recommendations: Family Photo Detective

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