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tintypes - history

The American Tintype

Between the introduction of the daguerreotype process to the Academie Freancaise in 1839 and the introduction of the roll film camera by Kodak in 1888, innovations in photography succeeded each other with remarkable rapidity. Among them was the tintype, developed in the early 1850s in Ohio. Its virtues were the durability of the thin sheet of japanned iron, on which the image appeared, and the economy with which the pictures could be created. A camera with multiple lenses duplicated the image on a sizable sheet of iron, which could then be cut up with tinsnips, yielding six pictures for twenty-five cents.

The two rival developers of the original plates, Victor Moreau Griswold and Peter Neff Jr., named their products respectively ferrotypes and melainotypes, which, by about 1860 had been abandoned by the public for the entirely erroneous collective name tintype. Unlike the silvered daguerreotype plates and the glass plates on which ambrotypes were made, the japanned tintype plate was ready to use without polishing. However this was hardly a Polaroid picture. The plate was first coated with collodion, a toxic and inflammable mixture that could be bought from druggists since in its simple state it was used to dress wounds. Photographers then added other sensitizing chemicals and allowed the plate to dry to a tacky consistency before dipping it in a bath of silver nitrate and other ingredients. Before this solution dried, the photographer had to take his picture, which required an exposure of about five seconds for a studio portrait. Then he again disappeared into the darkroom to develop the plate. Finally, a coat of varnish was applied to preserve the image.

Given the length of the exposure, for steadiness portrait clients leaned back into a horseshoe-shaped headrest on a stand. Props included draperies, books, rustic gates, and fake grass, rocks, rivers, and lakes. And as often as not a capacious and soothing waiting room was provided, showing off the photographer’s best work and providing newspapers, magazines, flowers, and comfortable chairs. Tintypes may have been cheap, but competition was evidently ferocious enough for photographers to pamper the client.

Because the tintype could be sent through the mail without the risk of much damage it represented the perfect snapshot memento, especially during the Civil War. Traveling tintypists did a brisk business at army encampments creating keepsakes for those back home. When the war ended these same itinerants took to the roads and even to flat-bottomed riverboats, which were both shop and home. One such boat, owned by John P. Doremus who plied the Mississippi River in it, was topped by an eighteen- by seventy-six-foot house and studio. Clients waited in a large room hung with oils and watercolors and furnished with a marble-topped table. There was a "toilet room" for customers, a dining room, parlor, stateroom with two berths, a kitchen, pantry, storeroom, "operating room," as the studio was originally called, and a darkroom.

The description of this comfortable establishment and, naturally a photograph of it tied up to the riverbank are contained in what its authors claim to be the first comprehensive book about the tintype. They write: "Most texts on the history of photography have included a few paragraphs on the inventors of the process and its use for casual pictures. The few examples shown were usually uninspired portraits or caricatures of two or three friends who went to town, got drunk, and had their tintype made. The overall impression was that it was readily available and quick and served as cheap, impulsive entertainment."

The authors have explored the history and the technical process of making tintypes and the many variations of the tintype--as mementos and cartes de visite for insertion into albums. They have also selected for illustration a large number of examples in a section entitled "A Victorian Family Tintype Album: Glimpses of American Life, 1856-1900."

Valuable appendixes cover the various tintype patents, formats, and plate makers, as well as brief biographies of some four hundred tintypists.

The authors write: "In time the best of the manufacturers, photographers, and patrons established the importance of the tintype on the American scene. The art world, however, was slower to see it as an important, indigenous, and unique American medium." This book redresses the imbalance admirably

COPYRIGHT 2000 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group


Magazine Antiques, March, 2000, by Alfred Mayor

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