What Do You Know About Tintypes?

Recently a number of patrons have contacted us asking how to identify and care for tintypes they found in their famiy photograph collections. Read more to find out if you might have a tintype of your own.

Example of a tintype presented in a case.

When were they introduced?
They were patented by Hamilton L. Smith of Gambier, Ohio in 1856 and quickly became a popular photographic format. Early tintypes were often presented in cases to resemble the more fragile daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. While daguerreotypes and ambrotypes needed the protection provided by cases, tintypes were far more durable.

Example of a later tintype from the 1890s.

How long were they made?
They became popular during the Civil War because they were cheaper and lighter weight than daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. Though most popular in the 1850s and 1860s, tintypes could still be purchased in the U.S. as late as the 1930s, particularly in touristy places like amusement parks and fairs.

Why are they called tintypes?
The name is a misnomer because tin was not actually used to make them. The photographs were developed directly on thin iron plates lacquered black or chocolate brown. Sometimes they are referred to as ferrotypes or melainotypes instead.

How can you identify them?
Tintypes have a dull, flat finish. Photographers often hand colored the images to give them a livelier appearance. It can be difficult to distinguish cased tintypes from ambrotypes because their surface is also dull and flat. The way to distinguish cased tintypes from ambrotypes is to see if a magnet will stick to the back of the case.

Example of a tintype presented in an embossed paper mat.

Tintypes in paper mats, or no enclosures, were more common than cased tintypes. They vary in size from the samllest “Gem” size, which measures approximately ½ x 1 inches, to the largest full plate size, that is approximately 8 ½ x 6 ½ inches. The most common sizes for tintypes were sixth plate, measuring approximately 2 ¾ x 3 ¼ inches, and quarter plate, measuring approximately 3 ¼ x 4 ¼ inches.

How should they be stored?
When handling tintypes it is a good idea to wear cotton or latex gloves to protect the metal plates and photograph emulsion from fingerprints. If your tintypes are in cases, it is possible to remove them but it is not necessary. The cases are providing protection from dust, light and pollutants. The front covers of cases often separate from the backs of the cases and clasps frequently break. To hold the cases together you can wrap them with acid free tissue paper and tie them with string. One exception to the rule of not removing a tintype from a case would be if the glass in the case was broken.

Tintypes that are not in cases should be stored in individual enclosures. Paper enclosures should be acid free. Plastic sleeves should be polyester based plastic. When choosing enclosures look closely at the photographic emulsion on your plates. If the emulsion is scratched or flaking, a paper envelope is a better choice. Plastic sleeves may pull the loose emulsion away from the plates. If additional support is needed, you can place an acid free board in paper envelopes or plastic sleeves with the tintypes.

If you want to store tintypes in an album, choose a pocket style album that you can easily take the plates out of. Attaching tintypes to album pages with tape or adhesives is not recommended. If you have information, such as names and dates, to record about the tintypes write this information on the enclosures or the album pages. Adhesive labels attached to the back of plates are likely to loose their stickiness over time and fall off.

For long term storage they should be in a dark, dry place with low humidity and consistent temperatures.

Example of dented tintype with damaged emulsion.

What are common problems?
The iron plates are thin and susceptible to denting and rusting. The photographic emulsion can crack and come loose. Do NOT try to flatten dents in the plates. This may crack the emulsion of the photograph. If they appear dirty, do not wash them.  Water can rust the metal and wash away any of the photographic emulsion that is loose.  If the emulsion is not chipping or flaking, you can dust them lightly with a soft brush.

L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

This entry was posted in collections, Conservation and Preservation, Photograph Collections. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to What Do You Know About Tintypes?

  1. Donia Conn from the Northeast Document Conservation Center recently told me another good way to tell ambrotypes from cased tintypes: “Angle the image in the light, like when determining a daguerreotype. You will be able to see the depth of the glass in the dark areas of an ambrotype where you will not in a tintype.”

  2. Janna Amole says:

    How do you care for an ambrotype and when and how were they made?

    • ohiohistory says:


      Ambrotypes were made for a smaller window of time than tintypes. They were introduced in 1854 and commonly made until 1860. After 1860 they were made infrequently. Most of the information regarding handling and storage that is applicable to tintypes is also applicable to ambrotypes. Keep in mind, though, that ambrotypes are more delicate. The photographs are negative images developed on glass. They appear positive when another piece of glass painted a dark color is placed behind them. Their cases and mats hold the two glass plates together and protect them from damage. Generally it is not recommended to take ambrotypes in their cases apart. If the hinges or clasps are broken on the cases or the ambrotypes are loose in their cases wrapping them with acid free tissue and tying them with string is a good method for holding them together. For long term storage they are safest in a dark, dry, temperature and humidity controlled location. You can handle them with gloved or freshly washed hands, but the more they are handled the more you risk damage. Making copies to share and display is a good idea.

      Thank you,
      Lisa Wood

  3. photonicpat says:

    Reblogged this on Patricia Daukantas, Science Writer/Editor and commented:
    Looking for more information about various types of mid-19th-century photographic technology for my next feature article — details to follow, I promise!

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  5. Just wanted to let you know I reblogged this post on my blog about collecting antique images. I found your article after getting into a debate with someone about the longevity of the tintype process (they insisted that tintypes were dead and gone before the 20th century). Great resource and reference – I look forward to seeing more of your posts!

  6. Jennifer says:

    Who were the people that were associated with this proccess?

    • ohiohistory says:

      I apologize for my delayed response. The origins of the tintype are connected to Ohio. According to “Photographs, Archival Care and Management” by Mary Lynn Ritzenhaler & Diane Vogt-O’Connor the tintype was patented in 1856 by Hamilton L. Smith of Kenyon College, Ohio. Peter and William then bought the rights to manufacture the iron plates.
      Lisa Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

  7. Michael says:

    My name is Michael and I’m a 19th century case maker. Anyone looking for a new case to protect your tintypes, ambrotypes or daguerreotypes can find me at http://www.moderndayantique.com
    I have been a collector of cased images for years and would be happy to talk about images, cases, dating images, the wet plate process etc.

  8. Naomi Moore says:

    Do you know where we could purchase Archival products for our tintypes? Glass cases are a little expensive

  9. Rockne Johnson says:

    You can tell a tintype by the side on which the subjects hair is parted! Tintypes are mirror images.

  10. I part my hair on the right. My mother parts her hair on the right. So, Rockne, what side did my grandmother part her hair on?

  11. Michael says:

    you can tell its a tintype because it’s not on paper, glass or have a mirror like appearance.

  12. James says:

    I’m wanting to mount some tintypes for display on a wall. Could I use small magnets as a holding agent (i.e. magnet stuck onto wall, and then tintype drawn to magnet). Would it harm the tintype in any way?

    • ohiohistory says:


      A magnet would probably hold a tintype to the wall, but I would be concerned about scratching the emulsion of the image with the magnet and light damage. Tintypes are developed directly on the lacquered iron plates and scratching the emulsion is fairly easy to do. All photographs are subject to light damage if displayed in well lighted areas for long periods of time. My inclination would be to frame tintypes for hanging. Behind glass with UV filtering they would be protected from scratching and light exposure would be minimized. Making copies for display is also a great option.


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  14. Jessica says:

    I purchased some tinypes that are framed and still encased in the back side of their case (they did not come with the front cover). I really bought them for the frames and am wondering how I can safely remove the framed images from the case without damaging the frames or cracking the glass (although the glass is not a priority). Will they come out if I gently wedge them around the edge and then pull them up from there? Thanks in advance for your help.

    • ohiohistory says:


      If the tintype is loose in the frame inserting something like a thin spatula to pry it out may be possible. The method that is commonly used in museums is to use a sucker. By sucker I mean something like the round things that attach to windows with suction and you can hang a suncatcher on. You can attach this to the glass in the frame and pull the glass and tintype out. It is pretty easy to crack old glass without applying a great deal of pressure. The sucker method protects the glass. Sometimes they pull out easily and sometimes you find that the glass and tintype fit tightly.

      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

      • Jessica says:

        Dear L.,
        Thank you so much for your helpful reply.
        It turns out that the tintypes were loose enough for me to use a letter opener to gently remove them from the case. However, in the future I will know to use a sucker if need be, and I understand the risks involved with this.
        Thanks again,

    • Jessica,
      If the tintypes you purchased are portraits, you might consider scanning them and posting them to one of the websites for orphan photos – they are someone’s ancestors.

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  18. Chris says:

    I have a tintype portrait that is almost TWICE the full plate size. This is an original 19th century tintype. The condition is very good with the exception of some corrosion at the base up to a height of 1 1/2″ inches. I can find no record of such a large tintype anywhere. Can anyone supply information on this tintype, also as regards potential value, is it is indeed rare for size? Thanks, Chris.

  19. Katherine Dittmar says:

    I have a tintype, reportedly of my 3x great-grandmother Martha Autry, of a dark-haired young woman wearing a white lace cap in fashion of the 1840s. It is without any ID on the back for confirmation. Autry lived in Holly Springs, Mississippi fro 1839 until her death in 1866. I also have a far more formal daguerreotype of her in her old age which is ID in her daughter-in-law’s hand (my 2x great-grandmother). Is there any way to find out who was making portraits in Mississippi during the 1840s and 50s?

    • ohiohistory says:


      I apologize for being slow to respond. I would look for city and county directories for the towns and counties that they lived in or look for newspapers published in those towns and counties. Directories or newspapers may have listings or advertisements for photographers working in the area.

      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

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  21. Donna Michael says:

    I am having trouble finding a frame for a tintype. It had a gold frame on it years ago, but somehow the frame has disappeared. Where can I find just a frame?

    • ohiohistory says:

      Many tintypes have lost the frames and cases or paper mats that they were originally housed in. If you really want a frame that looks like it is from the time period my best suggestion is to look at online auction sites or antique stores and buy a tintype with a frame that you can remove and use for yours.

      Thank you,
      L. Wood, Curator for Visual Resources

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