Tintype Photography


The Tintype Photograph

As early as 1853, a French teacher named Adolphe Alexandre Martin (1824 -1886) had suggested using the newly-invented collodion process to produce a direct positive image on a black varnished metal plate to provide an aid to engravers who worked on copper and steel. In America, Professor Hamilton L. Smith (1819-1903), picked up on Martin's idea and experimented with making collodion positive photographs on thin sheets of japanned iron ['japan' was the name given to a glossy black varnish that was baked on to the surface of a material].

In February 1856, Hamilton L.Smith patented the "use of japanned metallic plates in photography." Two American companies started the production of japanned metal plates for photographic pictures. Peter Neff, who held Professor Smith's patent, called his manufactured plates 'Melainotypes' ("melaino" = dark or black] and his rival Victor Griswold names his plates 'Ferrotypes' ["ferro" = iron]. By the early 1860s, the inexpensive photographs which were made on these thin sheets of iron, were popularly known as ' tintypes.' There was no actual tin in the photographic plates, but the word ' tin ' was associated with thin sheets of metal and cheapness.

The 'tintype' became very popular in the United States during the American Civil War period. Thousands of American soldiers sent their 'tintype' portraits, which were unbreakable and relatively light, in the post to their loved ones.











[.ABOVE ] A tintype ( ferrotype) portrait of a young man taken around 1862 in the American Civil War period.










Two American tintype portraits taken in the early 1870s.

The 'Tintype' in England

In England in 1856, Daniel Jones, a photographer in Liverpool, together with William Kloen, a commercial traveller from Birmingham, had proposed the idea of producing photographs on unbreakable material such as metal, but their suggestion was not taken up by established photographers. When the 'tintype' was introduced from America in the 1860s, professional photographers in England, who were enjoying commercial success with the carte de visite portrait, were reluctant to adopt what they regarded as an inferior product. Very few high street studios offered to take ferrotype photographs. However, 'tintype' photography did have an appeal for travelling traders who had no previous experience in photography. The actual process was simple and straightforward to use, materials and equipment were relatively cheap and, as tintypes could be produced quickly, these itinerant traders could offer a 'photographic portrait while you wait' service. 'Tintype' photography became the process preferred by street photographers, travelling fairs and beach photographers.

Ferrotype Studios in England

In England during the 1860s, the ferrotype or tintype portrait could not compete with the carte de visite format which dominated the British market. In the early 1870s, American photographic firms made an attempt to popularise the ferrotype portrait in England. In 1872, Thomas Sherman Estabrooke of Brooklyn, USA, established a ferrotype studio in London's Regent Street and, towards the end of the same year, The Photographic News published an extract from Edward M Estabrooke's manual ,"The Ferrotype and how to make it". A small number of photographic studios in England produced ferrotype portraits in the 1870s, but they did not threaten the postion of the carte de visite as the most popular form of commercial photography.


Two tintype portraits taken at English Ferrotype studios in the early 1880s


The American Gem Portrait

The ferrotype process did not involve the use of a negative and, as in the case of the earlier daguerreotype, only a single, unique version of a particular image could be produced. Duplicates were not possible. In contrast, a studio producing carte de visite portraits was able to print dozens of identical copies from the glass negative which held the original image.The carte de visite format also allowed the photographic portrait to be mounted in a photograph album.

Studios which specialised in carte de visite portraits often employed special multi-lens cameras that could take up to a dozen pictures on a single photographic plate. In America, in 1860, Simon Wing patented a camera that could be used to produce dozens of images on a single iron plate.Wing's "Patent Multiplying Camera" could take up to 72 tiny portraits on a thin metal plate. The plate could then be cut up with metal shears to produce dozens of small pictures measuring 1 inch by 3/4 inch ( 2.5 cm x 2 cm ).

The postage stamp sized portrait could be mounted on a card of the same dimensions as a carte de visite and insertred in a regular photograph album. These tiny ferrotype portraits on specially decorated or embossed card mounts became known as "American Gems" in Britain.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s, American Gem studios appeared in the major towns of England and Scotland. In 1878, James Frederick Lowrie established an American Gem studio in London's Fleet Street and in the early 1880s he opened branch studios in Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. A rival photographer, Joshua Jewell, established American Gem studios in Manchester, Bristol and Newcastle.

The Tintype in Brighton

Henry Barrett was born in London in 1842, but in the mid-1870s he was living in the United States where he probably became familiar with the ferrotype process. He returned to England with an American wife and a young son and settled in Brighton. Around 1880 he was a partner in the firm of Barrett & Upton, which acquired Joe Parkin Mayall's photographic studio at No 6 North Street Quadrant, located at the bottom of Queens Road. Within a year Henry Barrett was the sole proprietor of the North Street Quadrant studio. Henry Barrett produced American Gem portraits at his Brighton studio in the early years of the 1880s.


An American Gem portrait of a young child taken at Henry Barrett's studio at 6 North Street Quadrant., Brighton ( Courtesy of Brighton's Local History Study Centre ).. [ SEE ILLUSTRATION AT RIGHT ]



Cabinet An American Gem Portrait of a youth iwearing a bowler hat.(c 1880) The back of the card mount carries a printed label giving the studio address as No 6 North Street Quadrant. This small tintype portrait was probably made at Barrett & Upton's Brighton studio or taken by Henry Barrett himself. ( Courtesy of Brighton's Local History Centre).




Website last updated: 4 June, 2003


This website is dedicated to the memory of Arthur T. Gill (1915-1987), Sussex Photohistorian


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