Sunday, 21 March 2010

Sidney's first appearance at Church, 16 June 1861

I often think of the rise of popular portrait photography as having really taken off with the introduction of the carte de visite by Disderi, a craze for which is commonly reputed to have been precipitated around 1860 by the enthusiastic British Royal couple. However, the collodion positive process, which had been introduced by Scott Archer in 1852, and resulted in the format known in the United States as the ambrotype, was responsible for the birth of another portrait type which Coe (1976) describes as also having become well known on that side of the Atlantic, the ferrotype or tintype. Writing about a recent visit to the Who Do You Think You Are? Live! family history show in London, Maureen Taylor remarked on her Family Tree Magazine photodetective blog that she noticed how tintypes are far less commonly seen in the United Kingdom. Perhaps this is the reason I understimate it's importance in those early years.

After having been first described in France in 1853, and then introduced into the US in the late 1850s by Smith and Griswold (Leggatt, 1999) the tintype became enormously popular from around 1860 onwards. There were significant advantages in this process, particularly to the itinerant photographer, in that the outlay expenditure for setting up in business was low, and it was quick and cheap to produce, and versatile. The lack of a negative meant that it was a one off portrait, which was the most significant disadvantage - for duplicates one had to rather go the carte de visite route. Their cheapness and versatility meant that tintypes were produced in huge quantities across the North America continent throughout the 1860s and 1870s, and remained enormously popular for the remainder of the Victorian era and even well into the 1900s (Hannavy, 1997). Leggatt (1999) states that, in his opinion,
"Compared with other processes the tintype tones seem uninteresting. They were often made by unskilled photographers, and their quality was very variable. They do have some significance, however, in that they made photography available to working classes, not just to the more well-to-do."
While I have to disagree about the mid-range tones of the tintypes rendering them uninteresting - to me they impart a feeling of warmth and immediacy generally not seen in the more common albumen prints of the carte de visite - the availability of these portraits to almost every facet of society often provides a glimpse into a side of life rarely encountered elsewhere.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

The roughly trimmed early tintype portrait shown here epitomises everything I like about the collodion positive format. The tonal range in this particular, unenhanced image is more than adequate, and has been embellished with some skillful hand colouring of the subject's pink cheeks and the light blue cravat tied around his neck. In fact, the tones of the tintype impart such depth to the photograph that I had to check carefully for further retouching. The stylised oak leaf-patterned edging to his jacket, the tartan check and folds of his skirt, the gold (I think!) patterned head band and dashing feathers on his dark velvet cap, the slightly hesitant expression on his face, even his neatly laced up boots, all point to it being a special day for the young subject of this portrait.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

A lthough we might be able to make an educated guess at the occasion, a paper label affixed to the reverse of the tintype, and inscribed in black ink with what appears to be a contemporary hand, handily reveals the purpose of the sitting:
Sidneys first appearance at Church. 16. June 1861
The lack of an apostrophe notwithstanding, I'm very thankful to his mother for recording the event for posterity. Surely it was his mother who dressed him so carefully for the important event, led him to church, and then into the studio, calmed his fears about about the head clamp being fixed into place and the strange man under the dark cloth fiddling for what seemed like ages, and likewise carefully wrote out the label when they got home later that day?

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

American poet William Cullen Bryant's mother recorded that he made his first appearance at church in the middle of his third year (Muller, 2008). This young lad appears a little older - perhaps about four years old - but it is likely that this was but the first of several visits that he made to a photographic studio during his lifetime. Audrey Linkman writes that most photographic portraits in the 1800s were taken to celebrate or record events that she refers to as rites of passage, such as christenings, birthdays, weddings and anniversaries. Although few of the photographs in our family history collections have generally been lucky enough to survive with such helpful annotations, it is often a useful exercise to examine portraits with a view to which significant event in the subject's, or subjects', life it might portray.

The carte de visite portrait shown above, which I used in a previous article on Photo-Sleuth, was probably taken in the late 1860s, and from the dress worn by the child clearly celebrated it's christening. Other events, such as the breeching of boys and the confirmation of both sexes may be more difficult to pick out, since the accompanying clothing changes may not be so obvious to us a century and more later. I'll be keeping a sharp eye out for such possibilties, both in my own old family photos as well as my collection of purchased photographs, and will hopefully feature some more in the coming months, as I return to a more regular posting of articles and images here on Photo-Sleuth.

Image © and collection of Brett Payne

These photographs have an even greater poignancy for me at the moment because, just as happened in the household of sometime reader of this blog intelliwench last year, my eldest daughter has just started at university a month ago. Of course this has occasioned some wistful perusing of old photographs, including the record of her first day at "big school" some dozen odd years ago, shown above. This shot captures her in the ubiquitous "two sizes too big/she'll grow into it" school uniform on her way to the car as we head off at the beginning of that first day, with her two younger, over-excited and very jealous sisters desperately wishing they were going too.

Some things change, some just stay the same.


Coe, Brian (1976) The Birth of Photography: The story of the formative years 1800-1900, (1989 Edition) London: Spring Books, ISBN 0-600-56296-4, 144p.

Hannavy, John (1997) Victorian Photographer at Work, Series: A History in Camera, Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd., ISBN 0-7478-0358-7, 136p.

Leggatt, Robert (1999) A History of Photography: The Tintype Process. Last updated 24 Sep 2008.

Linkman, Audrey (n.d.) Picturing the Family, Ch. 5.4 Rites of Passage, Unit A173_1, The Open University.

Muller, Gilbert H. (2008) William Cullen Bryant: Author of America, Ch 1. America's First Poet, SUNY Press, ISBN 978-0-7914-7467-9, 400p.

Sixth-plate tintype of "Sidneys first appearance at Church, 16 June 1861," by unknown photographer, Collection of Brett Payne

Carte de visite portrait of Unidentified woman and child, by Job Bramley, the Family Fry Pan Portrait Gallery, Leicester, Collection of Brett Payne

35mm colour print of LFP's first day at school, by Brett Payne, 13 January 1998, Collection of Brett Payne


  1. Wonderful to see you back, have missed your mahvalous writing and photos!

  2. Don't blink, Brett -- before you know it the rest of the young'uns will be following her :-)

  3. I love comparing the expressions on the little boy's face and your daughter's face. And I did much the same thing when my oldest daughter started college a year and a half ago - had to get those old early school photos out. Glad you're back!

  4. Sheri & Greta - Thanks, it's good to be back researching and writing again, and of course to know one's appreciated.

    iw - Yes, I suppose so ... it's six years away before my youngest will do the same, but it will spin by quickly, and another phase will begin.

    Greta - the similar expressions of slight apprehension struck me too, although of course it's probably as common an expression among young photographic subjects today as it was then.

    Regards, Brett

  5. Hi Brett. I'll echo those sentiments from others about good to see you posting again. And a lovely subject too - a nice discovery.

    I met up with Maureen at the Who Do You Think You Are? Live show as I was on a stand with a friend who is a photo restorer. Wow, it was a manically busy show and I must have seen and dated close to a thousand pictures. It does always strike me how few tintypes there are (although there seemed many more this year than last) but also I find them a nightmare to provide helpful information about - no studios, no obvious dating clues, other than the subject itself, and essentially the same technique and style, and variability in quality, are seen spanning a huge date range! I must have seen images from the 1870s right through to the 1910s!

    Another theme that I noticed and increased prevalence of, or maybe my eye is just becoming keener, is early copies of even earlier. There was a good number of cabinet cards of images that had to be 1860s, so clearly pre-dating the invention of the cabinet card. But the highlight was an ambrotype copy of a daguerreotype - never seen that before!

    Anyway, looking forward to your next instalment. Regards, James

  6. Good to hear from you too James.

    As soon as these things are pointed out it seems that one notices them everywhere, and wonders why one hadn't previously. I have come across quite a number copies, of course, but not that many very early ones. I will look at including some as subjects of articles in due course. It's an interesting topic, because it can so easily lead researchers, including myself, astray. After a talk I gave last year there were a high proportion of 19th Centrury copies in the collection offered to me for dating. I was asked how one tells, and it's not an easy question to answer briefly - there are many factors, which on their own, might not necessarily identify a copy, but together provide a strong indication.

    I have a few tintypes supplied loose in thin paper/card sleeves with photographers' details, and will try to dig them out some time for an article.

    Regards, Brett


Join my blog network
on Facebook