Episode 115: Identifying and Caring for Tintypes

I hope you’re enjoying this month-long focus on tintypes. Those inexpensive metal images of our ancestors appear in antique shops and online auctions in cases, paper sleeves, and without any protective covering.  Durable enough to be mailed during the Civil War they were common throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and persisted into the twentieth. Anyone could afford to pose for one. They came in a variety of sizes and shapes. Tiny thumbnail gems had lovely palm-size albums so that you could collect images of family and friends. They could appear in jewelry too. Their plate sizes mimicked the dimensions of daguerreotype plates from a ninth plate of 2 x 21/2 inches to a whole plate of 6.5 x 8.5. 

My family collection only contains a single tintype but when I asked audiences about the types of images in their collections, most of the room raises their hands when I mention tintypes.  The word tin is a misnomer for this image format patented in 1856.  They aren’t tin at all but iron.  Originally known as melainotypes or ferrotypes but tintype is the term that stuck.  In the American Tintype by Floyd and Marion Rinhart and Robert Wagner, a common expression   ‘Not on your tintype connotated a negative and persisted in popular writings until the early 1960s!   Early motion pictures were referred to as galloping tintypes.   While art historians tend to mention that tintypes reached their peak during the Civil War, that’s not my experience. If anything I’ve seen more of them from the late nineteenth century. 

Here’s a compilation of some common inquiries about these metal images. 

Were there itinerant tintypists? 

Absolutely. Mathew Brady had a portable studio during the Civil War.  If customers could get to the studio then photographers traveled to them with wagons, photographic train cars.  Watch for tintypes with a draped sheet as a backdrop. Sometimes you can spot the log cabin beneath it. 

I have a flaking tintype how should I care for it?

While it’s best to place tintypes in protective polyester sleeves, a flaking tintype should be stored in an acid and lignin free envelope instead.  Tintypes scratch and rust so polyester sleeves can prevent abrasion. 

My tintype is very dark, is there anything that I can do?

The good news is you can use a program like Vivid-Pix Restore to improve the quality of the image. Scan it at a high resolution of at least 600 dpi Tiff and upload it to your Vivid-Pix Restore program. You can play with the various settings in the program to make your pictures go from dark to brilliant. 

There is no information on my tintype, how can I date it?

When there is no sleeve or case, you’ll have to rely on clothing clues and background props for details. Clothing will help you place the image in a time frame. 

Related Episodes:

Episode 104: Clues in Group Portraits and Photo Albums.

Episode 97: So You Have a Mystery Photo? And Timeline Help


About Maureen Taylor:

Maureen is a frequent keynote speaker on photo identification, photograph preservation, and family history at historical and genealogical societies, museums, conferences, libraries, and other organizations across the U.S., London and Canada.  She’s the author of several books and hundreds of articles and her television appearances include The View and The Today Show (where she researched and presented a complete family tree for host Meredith Vieira).  She’s been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Better Homes and Gardens, The Boston Globe, Martha Stewart Living, Germany’s top newspaper Der Spiegel, American Spirit, and The New York Times. Maureen was recently a spokesperson and photograph expert for MyHeritage.com, an internationally known family history website and also writes guidebooks, scholarly articles and online columns for such media as Smithsonian.com. Learn more at Maureentaylor.com

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