The small cardboard box kept in the file drawer along with old owner’s manuals, instruction sheets, and letters caught my eye yesterday. I store the box in that place in order to keep track of it and keep it safe from exposure to light.
Inside of the box are several antique photographs, just a few inches in size. Half of them are conventional pictures printed on paper and the other half are the most fascinating photographs in the collection–tintype images. None of the pictures portray any of my ancestors or people my ancestors may have befriended, as far as I can determine.
All the photographs were taken in the late 1800s by what could be called the “instant photography” process of the day. The tintype, aka ferrotype process, produced a positive image onto a thin iron sheet. It was invented in 1856 by Hamilton Smith in Ohio as an alternative to the ambrotype which used a similar chemical process except that its emulsion coated the surface of glass plates.
Tintype photos became popular because they were considerably cheaper to make and they were not fragile like ambrotypes. The tintype sheet, coated with collodion (a thick, yellowish flammable light-sensitive substance) was exposed in the camera. The exposed tin sheet was immediately placed into developing chemicals while the collodion was still wet. The finished image was snipped to size and mounted into a pre-cut cardboard mat or cheap frame of some sort.
Due to the inexpensive, durable nature of the technique, it was used by traveling photographers and by some journalists during the US Civil War.
I bought this particular box of antique photographs because the previous owner believed he had a collection of Daguerreotypes. It turned out that none of the old photographs are the highly collectible Daguerreotypes. Even though I felt some initial disappointment at the discovery, I’ve come to greatly appreciate these tintypes as the historical relics they truly are.