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Tin Type Photographs

Although not exactly like pictures we encounter today, tintype photographs set the stage for photography in our era. Tintypes began in 1856 when an Ohio chemistry professor Hamilton Smith patented the tintype image. While not a new concept, the tintype was a combination of earlier experiments in imaging and existing commercial processes. Even though these photographs are known as a ‘tintype’, they are not actually made from tin. During their production in the 1800’s these pictures were were called ferrotype, in reference to the material they were created on; ferrous (AKA iron).

Jury Collection Tintype
Jury Collection Tintype


Before tintypes existed, the two main types of photographic images, the daguerreotype and the ambrotype, were created by treating glass with light sensitive collodin. The process to create these images was expensive and difficult.  When tintypes became available commercially, photographers were easily swayed by the durability, inexpensiveness, and easier emulsion process of the tintype which led to the downfall of images on glass. Unlike glass images, tintypes were also the first type of photography that didn’t need to be mounted in a case in order to produce an image.

Tintype Photograph
Tintype Photograph from the Jury Collection

Tintype images are taken on iron plates which are treated with an enamel to prevent rusting. Earlier tintypes are noted to be treated with a black enamel while later ones were treated with a brown enamel. When taking the image, no flash or click of a button was involved. The cap of the camera was removed and the person sat still in front of the camera while the treated iron plate captured a very underexposed (dark) image. The image would then be blacked by the enameling and coated with a collodion emulsion. The result, an image that appeared as the person waited.

Tintype’s enjoyed the longest success of all metal or glass based photos, lasting until the early 1900’s. Once their popularity began to decline, after the introduction of paper based photographs in the 1860’s, tintype’s continued as souvenirs from carnivals until their eventual demise. In our collection we have 10 tintype images, one of which is featured here.

Several of the tintype photographs in our collection  are from the Jury Family Photo collection. One of which, you can symbolically adopt through our Adopt an Artifact program!

If you want to see how a tintype photograph is made, check out this short video posted by George Eastman House: International Museum of Photography and Film and watch the image transform before your eyes!


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