The Tintype, a Type, but Not Tin

ImageIf there are boxes of old family photos in your possession the odds are pretty good that there will be a tintype or two in there somewhere. This method had a long run, lasting from around the mid-1850s to the early 1930s.

The word “tintype” is a misnomer.   Sometimes our language doesn’t keep up with our technology, or a reference gets entrenched and we can’t seem to adapt to the change. For instance, a koala bear isn’t really a bear but we keep calling it that.  And mustard gas was neither a gas or had anything to do with mustard.  Panama hats were made in Ecuador, but the people building the Panama Canal liked to wear them and they became associated with that place.  And we all realize that the stuff we wrap our leftovers in is actually aluminum foil (or aluMINium as the Brits say), but some of us still stubbornly refer to it as tinfoil.

Tintypes were more properly called ferreotypes (or ferrotypes) because the images were imposed on thin IRON plates  (ferro=iron), or melainotypes for the black or dark brown coatings applied to the iron plates to allow the negative to be viewed as a positive (melaino=black).    There was a procedure called a stannotype that actually used tin, but that’s a whole ‘nother kettle o’ fish.

Tintypes were wildly popular.  They were cheap and they could take a lot of wear and tear.  They didn’t scratch easily like the daguerreotypes or shatter when dropped like the ambrotypes.  Another thing they had going for them was that they were quick to produce and for the first time photographers were able to take the studio to the people.  They could set up at carnivals and fairs or even follow soldiers into their encampments to take photos they could send home to their families.

Tintype photographs were images captured on thin sheets of iron coated with a dark brown or black coating.   They usually appear in mirror-image which is something to consider when trying to identify your old family photos (though some photographers did have means to “correct” this and turn the image the to the proper orientation).

It’s a good idea to scan the image and make yourself a “flipped” copy for comparison to other “known” photos of family members.  It’s surprising how different someone’s features can appear when the photo is reversed.  (Does anyone remember the public befuddlement when President Jimmy Carter started parting his hair on the opposite side?)

More on identifying tintypes in the next post.

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