Photo Detective: All About Tintypes

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

What’s the most common type of photograph submitted to this column? Tintypes! These misunderstood genealogical gems appear in most family photo collections for three reasons: They were cheap, quick to produce and durable. The sturdy images are iron plates coated with light-sensitive chemicals and lacquered to resist rust. Also called ferrotypes, they came in several different styles and sizes. Tintypes were patented in 1856 and remained popular until the 1930s. With almost a hundred years of tintypes in family collections, dating them can be tough. 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, $59.95) and American Miniature Case Art by Floyd Rinhart (A.S. Barnes, out of print).

2. Paper sleeves
Many tintypes were placed in paper sleeves, rather than cases. 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, $78.95).

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, $60) 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.

Applying the process
Meghan Roberts found this tintype in her grandparents’ trunk of old family photos. The tintype doesn’t have a case, paper sleeve or revenue stamp, so Roberts must rely on size and clothing clues to estimate when the picture was taken. Here’s how the evidence stacks up:

At 2 3/8×3 1/2 inches, this tintype is an example of a bon ton, popular from 1865 to about 1910.

Although the child’s wearing a dress, we know that he’s a boy because his hair’s parted on the side. Boys and girls wore similar clothing until about age 5, so it’s not unusual to find boy toddlers in dresses. The style of his clothing—the boots and the wide trim on the dress—was common in the mid-1860s and early 1870s. This is a difficult image to date because the clothing lacks accessories that could narrow the time frame even further.

Roberts thinks this is a portrait of someone in the Weekly/Weekley family because most of the other photographs in the collection are from that family. She thinks it could be her great-grandfather Marion Lester Weekly, who was born in 1875.

The more clues in a family picture, the more likely you are to identify the subject. In Roberts’ case, we have only three clues to help identify the image—the image’s size, clothing clues and family information. The size of the plate tells us that the image was taken after the mid-1860s. And although the clothing appears to date from the late 1860s, the mother may have dressed her son in outdated or modified styles because of economic circumstances. Unless Roberts has another child in her family tree that fits the age of the toddler in this portrait, it’s reasonable to assume that the boy could be Marion Weekly. Additional family research could turn up other identified portraits of Weekly as a child and confirm the identity.

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.