Anna Waldo, Bridal Portrait
Likely by an itinerant tintypist, Paola, Kansas, circa 1891.

Tintype images began life as an inexpensive alternative to the daguerreotype. In the two decades after the introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839, photographic experimenters had energetically sought a less expensive and cumbersome way of capturing the photographic image. The tintype was patented in 1854 and later sold to Neff in 1856.

Very similar in appearance to their Ambrotype cousins the tintype has a pale whitish image. Both the ambrotype and tintype "collodion" images. In the ambrotype process, a small plate of glass is made light sensitive by pouring a mixture of collodion (gun cotton and silver nitrate) over one surface. The tintype process is exactly the same except that a small iron plate is substituted for the glass. Unlike the ambrotype, the plate was usually exposed in a "multiplying" camera capable of exposing a number of small images at once onto a single plate. Each duplicate image could then be cut from the whole plate and distributed to friends or family.

The main advantages of the tintype were threefold: it created an unbreakable, durable, photographic image supported on an iron plate, which could be carried into hazardous conditions such as battle without breaking like the fragile daguerreotype; it was the first truly instant photograph, ready for the sitter in a few minutes; it was inexpensive, its lowered cost of production meant working class could own photographs. Indeed, the tintype remained popular at seaside resorts and county fairs well into the 20th century exactly because it was the only instant photograph available. Later, its function was replaced by instant photo booths and the Polaroid cameras in the 1950s. The tintype had one of the longest periods of popularity of any early photograph type, lasting from the mid 1850s to the 1930s mostly at county fairs.

A tintype is made by coating an iron plate with a light sensitive collodion silver mixture. The tintype image has a similar appearance to the Ambrotype, which puts the collodion image on glass instead of a metal plate. The backs of tintype were lacquered to protect the exposed metal from rust and oxidation. The metal used to support the tintype image was actually iron, not tin. According to one story, they came to be popularly known as "tintypes" because of the tin shears used to separate the individual images. Although the tintype exhibits the same whitish gray image as the ambrotype, it can be easily distinguished because the iron support of the tintype will attract a magnet. (This test is helpful if you have never seen a daguerreotype and are presented with a cased tintype. Copper does not attract a magnet.) The tintype is more properly called a ferrotype.

Tintypes were usually produced in multiples at a single sitting, like the carte de visite, for distribution to friends and family members. A multiple lens camera was used to produce up to twelve images on a single plate (as with the carte de visite) for efficiency. As a result the tintype was inexpensive, opening photography to an even wider audience. Tintypes were widely considered cheap and artless by many photographers. And though it is true that many are, beautiful and artistic painted tintypes were produced, some with equally well-crafted decorative frames. The tintype was very popular with civil war soldiers because it was less likely to break than the fragile glass ambrotype or delicate copper daguerreotype. They could also be slipped into an envelope and sent through the mail.

The tintype had one of the longest periods of popularity of any early photograph type, lasting from the mid 1850s to the 1930s mostly at county fairs. Several types of tintype were popular throughout the life of the tintype. The earliest tintypes are stamped "Neff's Melainotype Pat 19 Feb 56" along one edge. The black iron support is of a heavier weight than later tintypes, about 0.017 of an inch. Tintypes of the civil war period (1861-1865) are primarily sized one-sixth and one-fourth plate. Often, civil war era images are datable by the Potter's Patent paper holders, carte de visite sized paper folders adorned with patriotic stars and emblems, that were introduced during the period. After 1863 the paper holders were embossed rather than printed. A tax on all photographs sold in the United States from 1 September 1864 to 1 Aug 1866 required the application of a revenue stamp. Continuous photographers cancelled the stamp by writing their initials and the day's date on the face. The cancelled tax stamps may be adhered to the back of an image case or an uncased tintype.

Brown or chocolate tintype images had a brief period of popularity from 1870 to 1885. In 1870 the Phenix (sic.) Plate Co. began making plates with a chocolate-tinted surface. It was said in a period journal, "created a sensation among the photographers throughout the country, and the pictures made on the chocolate-tinted surface soon became the rage". In the 1870s the "rustic" theme made its debut in studio photography offering painted backgrounds, fake stones, wood fences and rural props. Neither the chocolate tint nor the rustic look are to be found in pre-1870 tintypes.

In 1863, tiny portraits 7/8 by 1 inch (about the size of a small postage stamp) debuted with the invention of the Wing multiplying camera. They were popularized under the trade name Gem and Gem Galleries flourished until about 1890, when the introduction of the family camera made it no longer necessary to visit a studio that specialized in the tiny likenesses or card photographs. The Gem image brought the price for a photograph to an all time low. Often imprints found on carte de visite backs will indicate they were made in a Gem studio, but the carte de visite is not a Gem image. Most photographers were required to offer a versatile range of services and images types to stay in business. Gem portraits were stored in special albums that held one image per page. Also, larger albums were made that held several of the small images per page, perhaps holding as many as a hundred portraits. Gems were cut to fit lockets, cufflinks, tiepins, rings and even garter clasps.

From 1875 to 1930 itinerant photographers continued the tintype business on into the twentieth century in what is known as the carnival period. These itinerant tintypists set up studio tents at public gatherings, such as fairs and carnivals. They came equipped with painted backdrops of Niagara Falls, beach, boat and other novelty props for comic portraits. Other tintype galleries operated on the popular boardwalks at beach resorts. Early tintypes were placed in the leather or plastic (thermomolded) cases used for ambrotypes. Some tintypes may be seen loose in their gilt frames (image packet) either to reduce cost or taken from cases. As the tintype customer demanded lower prices, the cases were dropped in favor paper folders the same size as the popular card photographs (carte de visite) because the case cost more than the finished photograph. Some were decorated with patriotic themes like Potter's Patent paper envelopes. Instead of a glass cover, the tintype image was given a quick coat of Japan Black lacquer (varnish) to protect the image and any applied tints. Tintype Cartes de Visite were a popular and inexpensive alternative to the carte de visite image. They mounted a regular tintype sandwiched in a stiff card mount with a window cut in the front for viewing the image.

Tintypes were lighter and less costly to manufacture than daguerreotypes or ambrotypes. The average price from the inception of the process in 1856 until its fade­out was 10 cents to 25 cents for an image about the size of a playing card. Sometimes referred to as "The penny picture that elected a president". the tintype sold for a penny or less, making photography universally available. Photography became a possibility for the isolated farmer as itinerant photographers spread out over the countryside. And in big cities working class people could afford a tintype image. Tintypes are measured in fractions of a full plate as are daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. They came in full-plate, half-plate, quarter-plate, and one-sixth plate sizes. Tintypes frequently were carelessly trimmed when separating the individual images from the whole plate. This is partly because the case or envelope would cover the edges of the image. Very often the tintype image was tinted, giving it a more lifelike quality than the monochrome image could offer. Tints were added to cheeks, lips, jewelry and buttons. People were not ready to accept a photograph for what it was, but wanted it to imitate painting. Many miniature painters left their dying trade to become colorists. It was easier to apply tints to a tintype than daguerreotype because of the difficulty of applying pigments. Some painted tintypes are elaborate examples of the decorative arts.