The History of Tin Plate Portraits

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The History of Tin Plate Portraits
Tin plate portraits were photographs made using the tintype process. (old camera detail image by Stanisa Martinovic from

Tin plate portraits refer to photographs produced using an early photographic process called tintype. Also known as the melainotype or the ferrotype, the tintype process was developed in the mid-19th century and was among the first photographic image-making processes that enabled multiple prints to be made from a single exposure.


The tintype process built on the ambrotype method of photographic image-making. The ambrotype was a direct descendant of the first photography procedure, the daguerreotype. It used a similar technique of exposing a view onto a plate, but rather than copper coated in silver and iodine, the ambrotype used a glass plate coated in a chemical called collodion. Both of these developments meant that the cost and speed of producing photographs greatly reduced with the ambrotype.


The tintype process substituted a metal plate for the glass one used in the ambrotype. This meant that the image did not have to be exposed for so long, as light was now hitting a dark surface, rather than a transparent one. The exposure was done in seconds now, rather than minutes. This was a distinct advantage in taking portraits as it minimised the chance that the person sitting for the portrait would move, leading to the popularity of what became known as tin plate portraits. The tintype process also allowed cameras to be modified with apertures that allowed four images to be produced on a single sheet of metal. At around 2 inches square, these portraits could be mailed easily, aiding the spread of photography as a popular public pastime.


There are three men associated with the development of the tintype process, in three different countries. The first person to describe the process was Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in France in 1853. The process, under the name ferrotype, was patented in the United States by Hamilton Smith, a professor in Ohio, in 1856. In the same year, William Kloen patented the tintype in Great Britain.


The cheaper method of photograph production that the tintype represented made the commissioning and acquisition of photographic portraits widely available to the general public. The speed and ease of the process also made it a more mobile means of image production and it was used extensively during the U.S. Civil War. The tintype was the primary process of photography in the United States until the end of the 19th century. Then, George Eastman of the Kodak company began marketing film cameras, which were even more portable and less expensive than the tintype. However, the tintype process survived until the 1950s, often as a sideshow at county fairs.


The name "tin plate" used to refer to the photographs produced by the tintype process does not actually refer to any particular tin used in their production. It is thought that the name may simply be a stock name for any cheap metal that could be used for the portraits. It might also be a reference to the tin shears that were originally used to cut out individual images from a sheet of metal.

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