Next up to Capture the Image: The Ambrotype

My protagonist in DEATH BY DESIGN, my family history mystery scheduled for publication in March of 2013, is a whiz at organizing family memorabilia for her clients. Maybe I gave her this skill because I WISH I had it.  Organizing and indexing family photos and other “stuff” is a lot of work, but well worth it to help preserve family information and memories!

Last post featured information on daguerreotypes and a technique you might use to help identify the family members in these early photographs. While these early images were a wonder, the expense and the long posing time put them out of reach for a lot of folks. People started to clamor for something faster and easier.  (The more things change the more then remain the same, I guess).

The ambrotype soon eclipsed the daguerrotype somewhere around the mid 1850s.  In this method a piece of glass was coated with a light sensitive collodion (translation: some gooey stuff, if you want to know about the chemistry you can find out here:

The image was captured on the glass, then it was put over a dark backing, usually black velvet, but sometimes it was simply black paper or paper coated with black paint or varnish. Then a decorative metal mat was put on the front to frame the photo. Image

And finally a flexible metal edging was fit over the mat and wrapped around to the backside of the backing board to hold it all together.

The black background was using to help make the image viewable.  Without it the transparent glass made the image look more like a modern-day slide (usually a very over-exposed one). You can just make out the ghostly image of a woman on this glass plate.


When the backing is added, the photo seems to magically come into focus.


The sizes for the ambrotypes were roughly the same as for daguerreotypes and the available cases could be used for both.  These cases might be half-cases, meaning they had no lids, or a full case which is hinged and looks a like a lady’s powder compact.


The ambrotypes were cheaper and required less skill from the photographer (or ambrotypists as they were known back then).  The drawback was that they were extremely fragile.

The heyday of the ambrotype was short. The patent for the method was introduced in 1854 and the tintype was introduced in 1856 and soon  became the preferred method.  This is an advantage for all of us trying to discover information about our family photographs.  We can apply the same method that we used for the daguerreotype to try to identify a good pool of candidates from the information we know about when ambrotypes were used.  If a woman in a photo looks to be around 30, let’s say and we can assume (from the history of ambrotype) that she was around 30 in 1854-1859 (to give a reasonable range), then we can assume she was born anywhere from 1824-1829.  Check this against the information you have for your family members.  This is an estimate, of course, and if you have candidates whose birth dates fall slightly outside the parameters, you’d want to include those in the pool.

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4 Responses to Next up to Capture the Image: The Ambrotype

  1. Wilma Romatz says:

    I have one of a great-great grandmother that didn’t get broken until I got hold of it…. Talk about being good at preserving stuff! I am at least glad I had already scanned it before it broke.

  2. scribe50 says:

    They’re delicate little buggers! Glad you got the scan in first. I’m actually amazed at how wonderfully sharp and “deep” some of these old images are. Much richer than the tin-types, but then the tin-types didn’t shatter when dropped. Guess it was a trade off.

  3. I have a question that I hope you can answer…I have an ambrotype that has two plates of glass. I was wondering if you know if the mat is suppose to go under the top plate of glass like Daguerreotype?

  4. Bren says:

    One of the pieces of glass should be clear, this piece is the protective outer glass. The other piece should have the image on it. By “mat” I’m assuming you mean a dark material (either paper or painted metal). That should go behind the piece of glass with the image to make it visible as a positive image. Hope that helps.

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