Tintype Photographs

Tintype Photographs

You've got questions about tintype photos; our experts have the answers.

Q. I’ve discovered a small box of tintypes. How can I decipher them?

A. 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.

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. 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.

There are various ways to establish a date for a tintype. If it is in a case or a paper sleeve, you can try to determine when those designs were in style by consulting either the The American Tintype or other reference books such as the Rinharts’ American Miniature Case Art (A.S. Barnes).

Another clue may be on the back on the image. Photographs taken from Aug. 1, 1864 to Aug. 1, 1866, have a revenue stamp that varies according to cost of the image. However, costume details are best way to place a tintype within a timeframe.
Finally, you can use the clothing, hairstyles and props depicted in the image to help you determine when the tintypes were taken. If you can establish a time frame, you can estimate the ages of people in the photo and see who on your family tree was the right age during the right time period. You’ll find more on historical clothing and hairstyles and learn how this photo research process works in two books by Maureen A. Taylor: Uncovering Your Ancestry Through Family Photographs and the new Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries (both from Family Tree Books).

Learn more about how to research, preserve and share your family photos from the how-to books, CDs and webinars in Family Tree Shop’s Family Photos section.

Want to improve your genealogical skills and connect with other family historians—all from the convenience of home? Check out Family Tree University’s Fall 2012 Virtual Genealogy Conference, taking place Sept. 14-16. Early bird registration ends Friday, Aug. 10 at 11:59 p.m.—just enter code FTUVCEARLY at checkout to save $50!


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