Civil War Faces and The American Tintype

by John Holbo on December 5, 2010

The Library of Congress has released an amazing collection of almost 700 images of framed, Civil War-era tintypes and ambrotypes. I’ll stick a few under the fold, but you really should click over and browse the set. (Someone should make a book.)

A while back I bought America and the Tintype [amazon], by Steven Kasher. It’s a pretty good book – for some reason not included on the list of tintype-related titles on the LOC’s flickr page – but a bit pricey. I’ll just quote a bit from the intro and concluding essays:

A uniquely American phenomenon, the tintype was developed in Ohio in 1856 and popularized by their use as political campaign buttons in the 1860’s.

[Unidentified African American boy standing in front of painted backdrop showing American flag and tents ; campaign button with portraits of Lincoln on one side and Johnson on the opposite side are attached to inside cover of case] (LOC)

[an image from the LOC set: young, African-American boy with Lincoln campaign button]

These inexpensive and durable images were created and disseminated by thousands of itinerant makers who fanned out across the United States. As prosperity and leisure time increased for many, their desire to record themselves also increased. Unlike the costly and time-consuming daguerreotype, the photographic medium of the upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century, the tintype’s affordability encouraged sitters to explore and express their individuality and personality, making it the first truly democratic form of photographic portraiture [most of the Civil War images are pretty formal – with a few exceptions]. We see amateur performers, African American nannies with their white charges, butchers brandishing knives, men lounging in front of painted backdrops of beaches, girls holding dolls, and men staging mock robberies. The sitters showed up at the studio with props and reenacted their own stories; the tintypist recorded these often humorous self-portraits on thin pieces of iron sheeting preserved with a coat of varnish.

Then, from the final essay:

By around 1890, Kodak had killed popular tintype production with a sequence of technical, manufacturing and marketing innovations. By 1880, the founder of Kodak, Dr. George Eastman, was mass-producing dry-plate negatives, replacing the obstinate wet plates that had required the practices fingers of professional photographers, including tintypists. By 1885, Eastman was manufacturing celluloid roll film, the fundamental material of still and motion-picture photography (until the digital age) … ‘Kodak’ was a made-up word, a marketing word, a brand that Eastman thought would sound catchy in any language around the glob. He also coined the phrase, ‘You press the button, we do the rest.’ Suddenly, everybody could be a photographer. Tintype studios closed in droves.

Of course, hipsters in the 1890’s favored the hipstamatic iKodak app, to make their photographs look like old tintypes …

Anyway, the LOC set is just amazing. And, apparently, it is not some ancient holding of some venerable institution but items collected in the last 15 years by a Virginia family that took up the hobby, spent a lot of time on eBay and at auctions, trade shows and such. Good for them for donating it to the LOC.

[Unidentified girl in mourning dress holding framed photograph of her father as a cavalryman with sword and Hardee hat] (LOC)

[Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket, scabbard, and cap box] (LOC)

[Unidentified soldier in Union uniform and slouch cap with infantry insignia holding revolver to chest] (LOC)

[Unidentified African American soldier in Union sergeant uniform holding a rifle] (LOC)

[Unidentified young soldier in Union uniform and plumed Hardee hat with plain gauntlets and revolver sitting next to table with books] (LOC)

[Unidentified soldier in Union uniform with bayoneted musket, cap box, and canteen] (LOC)



garymar 12.05.10 at 9:00 am

The soldier with the pistol held to his chest — now that looks really familiar. I could have sworn I saw it in a history book. Or maybe at a Civil War museum.

And just by coincidence, I’ve almost finished my second reading of This Hallowed Ground, by Catton, which I picked up after somebody recommended it right here on Crooked Timber.


garymar 12.05.10 at 9:07 am

Actually, now that I clicked through to see the whole set, I see that that pose was pretty common. So I probably just saw a similar posed picture.


maidhc 12.05.10 at 12:15 pm

I find it sad that these photos have ended up anonymous. The concept of having a photo taken is surely to aid memory. When you go off to war, you should have a photo taken so people will remember you if you don’t come back.

An anonymous picture can still make us wonder about what happened to that particular person. But we can only speculate.

My family has photos of our soldiers in WWI (who we know) visiting other relatives in England while on leave, who we have no clue who they are. That information seems to have totally vanished. If you don’t have an amateur historian in each generation, the information is lost.


Chris Bertram 12.05.10 at 4:56 pm

Many thanks for posting this John, fascinating stuff.

I don’t think the “uniquely American” claim is right, but that’s a small point.


mw 12.05.10 at 5:10 pm

I find it sad that these photos have ended up anonymous. The concept of having a photo taken is surely to aid memory.

I have the suspicion that eventually (years? decades?) a lot of anonymous images are going to give way to web crawlers with advanced face recognition. If there are even a few identified photos of a person to start with, all the other images floating out there may be ID’ed and collected automatically. If so, it’ll be another one of the ways that the gradual loss of the historical past — which used to fade and disappear over time — has reversed course and is now steadily becoming richer, more connected, and more accessible.


Davis X. Machina 12.05.10 at 9:15 pm

And that will happen just as the last few history majors graduate from the last handful of schools that still grant BA’s — leaving few people with the inclination or training to use the wonderful new trove of data for anything besides amateur genealogy…


Chris Johnson 12.05.10 at 9:30 pm

I find the pictures of the young soldier boys especially poignant. They seem so alive, like children playing dress-up. Contrast them with the famous Brady photos of battlefield dead — the before and the after.


Tom M 12.05.10 at 9:41 pm

Mark H. Dunkelman’s book, Gettysburg’s Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death and Celebrity of Amos Humiston, told the story of a dead Union soldier with no identifying marks but a picture of his wife and children. The picture was circulated by a doctor in Philadelphia and eventually was recognized by a neighbor of the family.
Dunkelman’s book also tells the story of the Gettysburg orphans home founded as a result of the discovery of the dead soldier’s family. It’s a real tragedy all the way around.


John Holbo 12.06.10 at 12:34 am

“I don’t think the “uniquely American” claim is right, but that’s a small point.”

American exceptionalism in all things!

But seriously, I hadn’t really thought about it. A bit of googling suggests that tintyping may have been distinctively American to the extent that it did start in America and hadn’t properly taken root in a lot of other places before being supplanted by photography. But apparently ambrotypes are a European carnival novelty to this day – so declares wikipedia. Ambrotyping is the older process. Most hits for “European ambrotype” seem to be people asking for European ambrotypes, which are apparently hard to find, compared to the American variety. But maybe that’s just because ‘ambrotype’ is the American term. Searching for ‘wet collodion’+ Europe does a bit better. This stunning 1859 portrait of Sarah Bernhardt for example:


ogmb 12.06.10 at 3:18 pm

The Library of Congress website is a national treasure. Next up (leaked here first…): illustrations from Punch.


MarkUp 12.07.10 at 1:55 am

Oh mon! Some crazed Frenchman and edumacator, Adolphe A. Martin, is the true inventor. We Yanks were unique in gaining [rapid] commercialization and a patent. Yes, hairs can be split, but only if kept out of the wet emulsion.


Emma_in_Sydney 12.07.10 at 2:30 am

Someone totally has to link to this on a Civil War thread on Ta-Nehisi’s blog.

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