Some notes on old photographs

with particular reference to the tintype photo number P303

The following notes come from a book and from correspondence which Alan Sawkins had with the National Museum Of Photography, Film & Television in the UK .


(Extracted from the introductory note to the book Dear Friends - American photographs of men together, 1840-1918)

Dear Friends is intended for all readers, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with the arcana of nineteenth-century photographic techniques and formats. Nineteenth-century photography was marked by a rapidly unfolding sequence of sometimes overlapping technological developments that led from the invention of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes to the introduction of tintypes; and from the first photographic prints on paper to the commercial dissemination of multiple prints from negatives such as cartes-de-visites, cabinet cards, and "real photo" postcards. These developments were accompanied by evolving conventions for describing variations in the size and formats of different kinds of photographs. Today these conventions remain informative principally among specialists in early photography.

... In illustrated books and catalogues on early photography, the measurement of cased images such as daguerreotypes invariably still refers to the size of the photosensitized silver-coated copper plate, rather than that of the decorative case that would ultimately contain and protect it. Moreover, the size of a daguerreotype is not traditionally measured in inches, but is denoted instead in terms of the fraction that a given plate represents of the standard, full-size copper plate that manufacturers mass produced for distribution to photographers from the mid- 1840's, thereby establishing the daguerreotype as the first commercially viable form of photography. The size of such full plates has been estimated at 8 1/2 x 6 1/2 inches. Smaller sizes commonly included the half plate (51/2 x 41/2 inches), the 1/4 plate (4 1/8 x 3 1/8 inches), the 1/6 plate (3 1/4 x 2 5/8 inches), the 1/9 plate (2 1/2 x 2 inches), and the 1/16 plate (1 5/8 x 1 3/8 inches). These dimensions are approximate averages, in fact-based on the dimensions of daguerreotypes that have survived. (It was not unusual for daguerreotypists to trim the mass-produced plate).  Notwithstanding its lack of universal and scientific precision, this method of referring to the size of photosensitized plates was also applied to the ambrotype (a photographic impression on glass) after its introduction in 1854. ...

The commercial manufacture and dissemination of photosensitized copper and glass plates in standardized sizes was retained as well by manufacturers of the thin iron sheets (photosensitized by a film of silver nitrate against a background of dark Japan varnish) that photographers employed in the production of tintypes after their introduction in 1856. But although manufacturers adopted this standard to mass produce and distribute such plates, photographers - many of them itinerants working at the far reaches of the continental United States out of horse-drawn wagons that might at once serve as home, studio, and darkroom - did not hesitate to cut and trim them to suit their immediate needs and desires. Surviving tintypes therefore exist in a bewildering array of irregular sizes and shapes, suggesting a veritable photographic folk tradition. As a result, the old fractional system for denoting the size of a photograph based on its plate size cannot meaningfully be applied to tintypes.

There are many available sources for such technical information, and not all of them agree on the fundamental details. I have relied on O. Henry Mace, Collector's Guide to Early Photographs ( Iola , WI . Krause Publications, 1999),20-25.




General Information

Tintypes, or ferrotypes, were introduced around 1855.  Itinerant, fairground and beach photographers commonly used them, as the plates were lighter and less fragile than glass plates.  Ferrotypes continued to be a cheap form for portrait photographs, particularly outdoors, until the 1930s. 

The ferrotype is a direct positive photograph - like a Polaroid photograph, or a daguerreotype, it has no negative.  The sensitised metal plates could be coated with wet collodion, exposed, processed in a portable darktent, and handed to customers in a little over a minute.  After the introduction of dry ferrotype plates in 1891, photographers used ferrotype cameras with built-in processing facilities. 

Some ferrotypes were mounted in a stamped metal overmatte with a cover glass, or in light paper or card mounts.  Sometimes the image was hand-coloured. 


The main risk with these images is that the metal plate rusts, causing the metal to blister and the lacquer and photographic emulsion to lift from the base. 

You cannot undo the damage that has already occurred, but you can prevent further damage by placing the ferrotype in a cool, stable and fairly dry environment.  The image may be displayed as long as it is not in a room which has high levels of daylight or artificial light, and is not hung near a fireplace, radiator or other intermittent heat source. 

For storage, ferrotypes should be wrapped in tissue paper or a clean cotton cloth and placed in a small box to prevent physical damage and pressure to the edges and surface.


Photographic conservation is a service activity offered to institutions by trained individuals. It frequently uses specialist equipment, employs sophisticated techniques, and often has financial implications. The following are generally recommended by the Institute of Paper Conservation for photographic conservation advice and work:

The British Museum , Department of Scientific Research and Conservation, London WC1B 3DG, Tel. 0171 636 1555

Miss Elizabeth Martin, Prints and Drawings Conservation, Conservation Department , Victoria and Albert Museum , London SW7, Tel. 0171 938 9000

The Conservation Centre, Whitechapel, LIVERPOOL , L1 6HZ, Tel. 0151 207 0001

Conservation by Design Limited, Timecare Works, 60 Park Road West , Bedford , MK41 7SL , Tel. 01234 217258

Susie Clark, 3/4 Hill Top, Grafton, York   YO5 9QL, Tel. 01423 322744

Johan Hermans, Department of Conservation, Museum of London , London Wall, London EC2Y 5HN, Tel. 0171 600 3699

Dating Photographs by Fashion

One of the most effective ways of dating photographs is by what the people in the picture are wearing.  However, it might be worth keeping in mind the fact that the clothes being worn in a photograph may be ‘out of fashion’.

There are many books on the history of fashion that would be useful in the dating of photographs, but the ones below are particularly useful...

BUCK, Anne; Victorian Costume (Ruth Bean Pubs., Bedford, 1984)

GINSBURG, Madeleine; Victorian Dress in Photographs (Batsford, 1982)

LAMBERT, Miles; Fashion in Photographs 1860-1880 (Batsford, 1991)

LEVITT, Sarah; Fashion in Photographs 1880-1900 (Batsford, 1991)

Dating Old Photographs, by Local Heritage Books, Newbury, Berks.

See also the Costume Society.  Their periodical, Costume, is a useful source of articles on the history of fashion. 

For details contact Anne Brogden, 63 Salisbury Rd , Garston, LIVERPOOL , L19 0PH


If you contact any of the people listed below, they will need a photocopy of the front and back of the photograph you are researching.  If it has been enlarged please let them know the size of the original.  An SSAE will ensure a more prompt reply.

The Fashion Research Centre, 4 Circus, BATH BA1 2EW, tel: 01225. 477 752 & 01225. 477 754, web site:  Able to help date photographs by mail - but enquirers should provide a SSAE to ensure a reply.

Jean Debney, 8 Huckleberry Close, Purley-on-Thames, READING RG8 8EH  An independent freelance genealogist who provides a photograph dating service using fashion as the key for a reasonable fee, but only by post.

Anthea Bickley, Bolling Hall Museum , Bolling Hall Rd , BRADFORD   BD4 7LP , tel: 01274. 203 057  Can be contacted for an opinion as to the date of a photograph, based on the clothes as worn in the picture.  There is no fee for this service, so please be patient when waiting for a reply.

Museum of Costume & Textiles, 51 Castle Gate, NOTTINGHAM   NG1 6AF, tel: 0115. 948 3504

Shambellie House Museum of Costume, New Abbey, DUMFRIES   DG2 8HQ  tel: 01387. 850 375

Gallery of English Costume, Platt Hall, Rusholm, MANCHESTER   M14 5LL   tel: 0161. 224 5217 Does not offer a formal dating service, but may be able to offer some advice.

We do not advise that you send the original photograph.  Nor do we recommend you photocopy the original photograph directly.  We would recommend that you make photocopies from a new photograph of the original.  That way you can send copies at a reasonable cost without damage to the original photograph.

THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY: a brief bibliography

Photography and photographs

COE, Brian, The Birth of Photography...1800 - 1900, (1976)

COE, Brian, Colour Photography,  (1978)

COE, Brian, and P Gates, The Snapshot Photography, (1977)

COE, Brian and Mark Haworth-Booth, A Guide to Early Photographic Processes, (1983)

CRAWFORD, William, Photographic Processes, (1979)

FRIZOT, Michel (ed.), A New History of Photography (Konemann, Koln, 1998)

GERNSHEIM, Helmut and Alison, The history of photography (1969)

GERNSHEIM, Helmut and Alison, A concise history of photography, (1986)

GERNSHEIM, Helmut, The origins of photography, (1982)

HENISCH, H&B, The Photographic Experience 1839-1914: images and attitudes                     (Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1993)

HILEY, Mike, Seeing through photography, (1983)

JEFFREY, Ian, Photography - a concise history, (1981)

LEMAGNY, Jean Claude, and André Rouille (eds), A history of photography, (1986)

LINKMAN, A, The Victorians: photographic portraits (Tauris Books, London, 1993)

NEWHALL, Beaumont, The history of photography from 1839 to the present, (1982)

POLLACK, Peter, The picture history of photography

ROSENBLUM, Naomi, A world history of photography, (1984)

TAUSK, Peter, Photography in the twentieth century, (1980)

TURNER, Peter, History of photography (Hamlyn, 1987)

Photographic equipment

COE, Brian, Cameras: from Daguerreotypes to instant pictures, (1978)

COE, Brian, Kodak cameras - the first hundred years, (1988)

HAMMOND, John, The camera obscura, (1981)

HICKS, Roger, A history of the 35mm still camera, (1984)

HOLMES, Edward, An age of cameras, (1974)

LATFORD, Cliff, Photo-ads: photographic advertising 1845-1915, (1986)

MCKEOWN, J and J, Collectors guide to Kodak cameras, (1981)

WADE, John, The story of cameras, (1979)

The Science Museum camera collection, Catalogue

Painting and photography

GALASSI, Peter, Before photography & the invention of photography

SCHARF, Aaron, Art & photography, (1968)

VAIZEY, Marina, Painter as photographer (Arts Council)

POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY: a select bibliography

BERMAN, Linda, Beyond the Smile: The Therapeutic Use of the Photograph  (Routledge 1993)

COE, Brian and Paul Gates, The snapshot Photograph: The Rise of Popular Photography 1888-1939  (Ash and Grant 1977)

FORD, Colin (Ed), The Story of Popular Photography  (Century Hutchinson 1989)

FORD, Colin and Karl Steinorth, You Press the Button, We Do the Rest: The Birth of Snapshot Photography  (Dirk Nishen 1988)

HARDING, Colin and Brian Lewis, Kept in a Shoebox: The Popular Experience of Photography  (NMPFT/Yorkshire Art Circus 1992)

HIRSH, Julia, Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effect  (Oxford University Press 1981)

KENYON, Dave, Inside Amateur Photography  (Batsford 1992)

KING, Graham, Say Cheese: The Snapshot as Art and Social History  (Collins 1986)

SPENCE, Jo and Patricia Holland (eds.), Family Snaps: The Meanings of Domestic Photography  (Virago Press 1991)

WEISER, Judy, PhotoTherapy Techniques: Exploring The Secrets of Personal Snapshots and Family Albums  (Jossey-Bass 1993)

WILLIAMS, Val, Who's Looking At the Family?  (Barbican Art Gallery 1994)


EDER , J M, History of Photography (New York, Dover, 1978)

Focal Press, Encyclopaedia of photography (London, Focal Press, 1978)

GERNSHEIM, H & A, The history of photography (New York/London, McGraw Hill/Thames and Hudson, 1969)

NEWHALL, B & N, The history of photography (London, Secker and Warburg, 1985)

ROSENBLUM, N, A world history of photography (New York, Abbeville, 1984)


COE, B and M HAWORTH-BOOTH, A guide to early photographic processes (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983)

CRAWFORD, W, The keepers of light: a history and working guide to early photographic processes (New York, Morgan and Morgan Inc, 1979)

GILL, A T, Information sheet 21: photographic processes (London, Museums Assn., 1978)

REILLY, J M, Care and identification of nineteenth century photographs (Rochester, Eastman Kodak, 1986)

REILLY, J M, The albumen and salted paper book (New York, Light Impressions, 1980)

REMPEL, S, Technical bulletin 6: the care of black and white photographic collections: identification of processes (Ottawa, Canadian Conservation Institute, 1979).  Available from CCI, National Museum of Canada , 1030 Innes Road , Ottowa , Canada KI1 OM8.

Collections Management and Conservation

FLEMING, A E, 'Conservation and storage: photographic materials', Manual of Curatorship (London, Museums Association/Butterworths, 1984)

HENDRICKS, K B, The Preservation and restoration of photographic materials in archives and libraries: a RAMP study with guidelines (Paris, UNESCO, 1984)

KEEFE, L and D INCH, The life of a photograph (London, Focal Press, 1984)

REILLY, J M, Care and identification of nineteenth century photographs (Rochester, Eastman Kodak, 1986)

REMPEL, S, Technical Bulletin 9: the care of black and white photographic collections: cleaning and stabilisation (Ottowa, Canadian Conservation Institute, 1980).  Available from CCI, National Museum of Canada , 1030 Innes Road , Ottowa , Canada K11 OM8.

REMPEL, S, The care of photographs (Nick Lyons Books, 1987)

RITZENHALER, MINOFF and LONG, Administration of photographic collections (Chicago, Society of American Archivists, 1984).  Available from SAA, 600 S Federal Street , Chicago , Illinois , USA

SEABORNE, M and S NEUFELD , 'Historic photograph collection management at the Museum of London ', Museums Journal, 82(2),  (London Museums Association, 1982)

SWAN, A, The care and conservation of photographic material ( London , Crafts Council, 1981)

WEINSTEIN, R and L BOOTH, Collection, use and care of historical photographs (Tennessee, American Association for State and Local History, 1977) Available from AASLH, Nashville , Tennessee , USA


BS 1153:1975    Recommendations for processing and storage of silver gelatin microfilm BS 5454:1977       The storage and exhibition of archival documents, section 12, pp 6-7 BS 5687:1979            Recommendations for storage conditions for silver image photographic plates for record purposes (revised 1985)

ISO 5466:1980   Photography: practice for the storage of processed safety photographic film (revised 1985)

ISO 6051:1980   Photography: silver image photographic paper prints for record purposes  - storage conditions (revised 1985)

Produced by Roger Sawkins, or PO Box 57, Cannon Hill, Queensland 4170, Australia (61 7 3398 4222).
Last updated December 2003