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Ferrotypes - the Polaroid of the 1850s & 60s

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

Ferrotypes, also known as tintypes for their 'cheap' feel and quality, are sheets of iron coated with black enamel on which a collodion photographic emulsion has been adhered. Tintypes are usually small and dark in nature, and usually contain rust spots where the photographic emulsion is lifting. Tintypes became an early more affordable 'instant' photograph than ambrotypes or daguerrotypes, which involved a lengthy wet-processing on glass or highly polished silver plates.

This month's photograph is a tintype in rather poor condition, but still a gem nonetheless. It's roughly 3 inches h x 2 inches w - and is relatively dark in color (I lightened the scan slightly).

Based off the hairstyle alone, this is a tintype from either the late 1850s or early 1860s. Based on the cravat around her neck, I would say early 1860s - most likely during the Civil War. One of the buttons on her bodice is much simpler than the others, perhaps it fell off and got lost, with the only replacement one of a inferior value? While rationing wasn't necessarily a 'thing' during the Civil War, certain commodities were more difficult to get than others.

One of the things I love about this tintype are the hand tinted rosy cheeks - maybe it was a gift to a sweetheart to carry with him as he marched to war? Who knows. I do know that I wish I could see her whole outfit instead of just her bodice and cravat!

Below are two separate (modern) videos on how tintypes are made. The first, from the George Eastman Museum, is a visual take on how one is made, with close ups of the processing and finishing process. The second follows an Australian photographer, who has his own portable darkroom. He explains in detail the process, which is great for those who want more than just a visual of what's going on. They're both great in their own right, so if you have about 10 minutes to spare, watch both! They're fascinating!

George Eastman House

The Guardian - Australia

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