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tin types?

Posted by tami_ohio (My Page) on
Tue, May 18, 10 at 15:13

Hello, I usually frequent the Kitchen Table, Cooking and Knitting forums here at garden web. I would like to ask a question please.

How do I date a tin type photo? While going thru some old family photos, I ran across two tin types. There is no one left alive who has a clue as to who they are. I thought that if I could come up with an approximate date, it would help me figure out who they were by going thru the family tree.

Any help is appreciated.


Follow-Up Postings:

RE: tin types?

Hi Tami,

Actually, I think the Kitchen Table would be a good place to ask, as many of the members are skilled at genealogy. The Photography Forum isn't a very busy place, unfortunately.

I would think the clothing worn by the people in the photos might provide a clue.

You could also ask at the Antiques and Collectibles Forum. Lots of experts there.


RE: tin types?

The earliest successful photographic process was the "Daguerotype", which was developed by Charles Daguere in about 1843. The Dagurotype used a silver plated copper plate which was sensitized by fuming it with heated mercury.

A variation of the Daguerotype process was the "tintype" which used a silver plated steel plate in place of the copper plate. The tintype was developed in France in 1853 and was first patented in the U.S.A. in 1856.

Both of those processes were not for the faint of heart. Each photographer had to sensitize their plates immediately before taking the picture, and the plate had to be exposed while it was still wet.

Perhaps one of the most famous photographers to ever live was Mathew Brady, who managed to film the civil war as the worlds first combat photographer. His work was considered so important at the time that he was permitted to travel back and forth between Union & Confederate lines. Nearly all of the photographs that we have of the civil war were produced by Brady, who worked with a home made camera and a portable darkroom in a horse drawn wagon.

Historically the Daguerotypes have held up better than the tintypes because the copper plates of the daguerotypes do no rust.

Even after the developement of commercial roll film many photographers continued to produce tintypes as a novelty at county fairs and public gatherings up until the early 1950's when they finally stopped making the metal plates.

RE: tin types?

Thank you both for your replies. I might scan them and post them at the KT.

Lazypup, your info will at least get me a little closer to dating them. We have no idea who they might be.


RE: tin types?


After I posted that i realized I omitted some information that might prove very helpful to you.

Although the Daguerotype process was invented in 1853 and patented in the U.S.A. in 1856 it was not widely used until the early 1860's, and even then the term widely used is somewhat arbitrary. The entire process of photography was extremely expensive, complicated and downright hazardous to the health of the photographer. While we say that the daguerotype process and the tin type process was widely used by photographers, it can also be said that there were perhaps less than 100 full time photographers in the entire country prior to the mid 1860's.

In 1873 George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak invented roll film, which immediately revolutionized the entire photographic industry.

While they did continue using the daguerotype and tin type process as a carnival novelty up to the 1950's, in general the daguerotype & tin type processes were not in common use after about 1885-1890.

If it would be possible to scan your image and email me a copy I may be able to examine it and give you a bit more information.

My email addr is :

RE: tin types?

Thank you Lazypup! My DD has an associates in photography, but had not learned enough about that part to help with dates. I will gladly scan and email them to you. One is damaged. I have them in scrapbook archival sleeves to help protect them. We only handle them by the edges, so as to not leave finger prints on them, hoping to keep them in their current condition. DD only visits the forums occasionally, but guess who sent me here?! Her, of course! I didn't even think about there being a photography forum here. Guess she's smarter than her mother!


RE: pictures

Here are the two tin types.



Lazypup, I am also emailing them to you.


RE: tin types?

Anyone who has ever owned silver serving ware, silver jewelry or real silver flatware knows only too well that silver is an "Actinic" metal, which means the silver will take on a dark brown or black tarnish when exposed to light for a prolonged period of time. That tarnish is the basic principal by which an image is created on a Daguerotype or Tintype plate.

Although the Daguerotype used a silver plated copper plate while the Tintype used a silver plated steel plate the key component was the silver plating and back in the day it was common for people to refer to both processes simply as tintypes.

Tami has identified her pictures as tintypes although I suspect they may actually be Daguerotypes, based upon the green tarnish on the second image. Although I am sure there could be other reasons for the green tarnish I am guessing it is perhaps copper sulfate, which is the green patina that is common on old copper surfaces.

The original Daguerotype and tintype processes did not lend themselves well to portrait photography because they required working outdoors in bright sunlight and they were extremely long exposures, often requiring as much as 30 minutes. If we examine some of the early works of Mathew Brady during the first couple years of the civil war we can see that in nearly all cases when he photographed people in the shot, the people were nearly always seated outdoors and some documents suggest that he actually had chairs with small metal headrests to insure the subject could remain still long enough to take the picture.

In approximately 1863 they discovered that instead of silver plating the base metal they could sensitize the plate with an emulsion of silver Bromides. That shortened the exposure time to about 30 seconds. Once they had the faster exposure time, they then developed a method of artificial lighting by means of "Flash Powder". Although there were numerous formulas for making flash powder the simplest method was using a finely ground type of gunpowder. With the advent of flash powder it became possible to have indoor portrait studios.

In examining Tami's photos it is apparent that the pictures were taken in an indoor portrait studio so I would guess those picture were made sometime after 1863 however both the DAguerotype and Tintype prodcess were quickly phased out after George Eastman developed roll film in 1873. Therefore I would guess those pictures were taken sometime between 1863 and perhaps as late as 1885.

RE: tin types?

Both photos appear to be "studio" shots. As was common in those times, the photographer used backdrops to fill in the background. These backdrops had scenes painted/printed on paper or cloth rolls. Sometimes you can detect these are wall hangings by examining the bottom where they touch the floor. If the bottom rests on the floor, a small wrinkle may give it away; If the hanging is held above the floor, a dark shadow line or the quarter round on the baseboard may show.

For outdoor shots, a traveling photographer might use a white bedsheet. I have a couple of family portraits made this way and I can see wrinkles in the sheet and at the bottom are blades of grass.

Note that the figures in a "tin type" are reversed from left to right. Free hand sketches can show how this happens. For many years, it was believed that Billy the Kid was left handed until it was realized that his image was reversed. Billy was right handed, but his photo seemingly shows a pistol worn for the left hand.

Although the dry plate process had been invented, Matthew Brady continued to use the wet plate process during the Civil War because he already had the equipment, was familar with the process, and had trainned crews. It was more important for him to get into the field and record history than to worry about the latest gadgets.

What is not widely known is that many of the Civil War "Brady" photos were made by his employees. This is how he was able take photos at widely scattered locations within a short time frame. However, Brady financed the operation with his own funds and trained the crews. He recognized the significance of that war.

As a sidelight, Brady photographed scenic features, one being the Dells of the Wisconsin River. His plates are still in use today to measure erosion rates. The same scene can be photographed by a camera placed in the exact location he used and the lens zoomed to the same focal length. Erosion and landscape changes is measured by comparing the current photo and Brady's photos.

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