History: Tintypes

Brothers in Arms

In searching for ideas on the history of film and photography in general, I found myself swamped with information. It seemed appropriate that like the process of developing film, I should take my time in writing about the history involved. This first post, on Tintypes, is especially important to me. From childhood, I have been fascinated by the American Civil War.

In the above image, you can see me (left) with my friend, Mike. This man helped introduce me to Civil War reenacting, something I had wanted to do for years. Tintype photography was one of the primary methods of capturing the Civil War experience from 1861-1865. You have probably heard of Matthew Brady or Alexander Gardner. I met them as a kid.


Whenever I visited my grandparents, I enjoyed doing several things: stamp collecting with Grammy, watching John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies with Pappy, playing the same Zelda trial on the Nintendo GameCube, and reading this book. I have it now on my own bookshelf.

The Photographic History of the Civil War by Portland House

This was one of the first books I read…okay, looked through. The book is more photographs than writing. In three volumes, you can visualize the Civil War from start to finish. I spent hours looking at the faces of another era. We often find ourselves seeing people in old pictures and, at first glance, they are two-dimensional. They have no character and no story. But if you take just a moment longer and let your eyes wander over their clothing and peer into their eyes, you see them as a person, who once lived on this Earth and had their own story to tell.

We often say “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It takes more than just a glance to read those thousand words. That’s something I love about photography in general, but antique pictures most: they help convey history in a different way that essays, poetry, novels, and paintings can’t do. If you are interested in photography or history, The Photographic History of the Civil War is a great book to have in your collection.

An Extremely Brief History

First, a description from Britannica: Tintypes, also known as “ferrotype, positive photograph produced by applying a collodion-nitrocellulose solution to a thin, black-enameled metal plate immediately before exposure.”

In laymen terms: tintypes are not film. They are not produced on paper. Tintypes are images captured on a slice of metal.

Tintypes evolved from previous forms of photographic methods (perhaps to be discussed in a future post) and were most common in the 1860s and 1870s. Tintypes were taken using either a wet or dry method, but both required a dark room and time. You can read more about the chemicals required in this post from Jessica Stewart on My Modern Met. During the Civil War, tintypes were common due to the revolutionary quick processing time it took to develop images (10-15 minutes). Though you still had to remain still for several minutes, this was a vast improvement over previous methods. Photographic equipment could be transported, set up, and taken down, quickly. Matthew Brady is probably the most well known photographer of the period. He captured thousands of images during the conflict including battlefields and portraits. It’s from his photographs, as well as the dozens of other photographers, that we can see life and death in the 1860s.

Tintypes were not reproduced. Tintypes were produced on iron plates (or other metals) and not paper.

Getting Personal With Tintypes

I’m mostly interested in the capture of time and the portraits taken of well known individuals as well as ordinary folk. I highly recommend taking time and looking at a few tintypes yourself. For each of the following, look deeply into their eyes and ask them: who are you? What was one of your shining moments? When did you feel like a failure?

Abraham Lincoln captured by Alexander Gardner in 1865 (Wikipedia)
Walt Whitman (My Modern Met)
Two Brothers (Library of Congress)
Unidentified Union Soldier (Library of Congress)
Mathew Brady Civil War Photos
Regiment Marching (My Modern Met)


How was that exercise in time travel? The Civil War is such an important and fascinating period in American – no, world history. When I was in elementary school, I was an active and mischievous kid. I got in enough trouble that the principal took away outside recess for some time. I spent recess in the library reading. The principal discovered my young interest in the Civil War and invited the district IT guy, a reenactor, to come and show his gear to me. That meeting took a hold of me and I became a dedicated learner of the Civil War.

Fast forward into college and I met Mike at an event hosted by the Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Maine. Mike introduced me to the unit he was Captain of: the 15th Alabama Company G. Quick history lesson! The 15th Alabama was the unit, commanded by William Oates, that charged Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

If you’re interested in reenacting, contact Nick. Suffice to say that the hobby has been amazing to join in on. I spent my 21st birthday in Gettysburg during the 155th anniversary of the battle. I hiked Little Round Top in uniform. I’ve shared my knowledge to students just as the IT guy shared it with me.

On the hike up Little Round Top


The point is that from the moment I read The Photographic History of the Civil War, I became fascinated by the era. But, it wasn’t just the battles, tactics, or guns (those are great to talk about too)! I am curious about people: their backstories, personalities, quirks, the reasons they act. Tin types were a way of capturing moments in time and the people involved. They were some of the first pictures I looked at and they instilled in me a love for history along with the desire to capture moments myself. Tin types are especially fun because they are tactile, one-of-a-kind images.

I hope that this post interested you. I wrote more than I expected and enjoyed the memories it brought up. Each memory was an image, of which I attached several. And though it’s not so much about film, you might say it sets the history for my love of vintage photographic styles.



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