A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2005

Tintype Portraiture in Early Auburn

by Alyssa Shirley Morein, Curator of Collections


The early days of photography, in the middle of the 19th century, were exciting times for people all around the world. This was partly because portraiture÷which had previously been a luxury of the upper classes, who could afford to pay high paintersâ fees÷was suddenly accessible to the middle and working classes thanks to the development of several quick and inexpensive forms of photography, like the tintype.

Baby on chair
Childrenâs clothing styles changed very little over the years,
making this photo difficult to date.
WRVM P.O. 634

Invented in the 1820s, photography was first made accessible to the masses with the development of the daguerreotype around 1840. The tintype, which followed about twenty years later, achieved an even more widespread popularity due to its comparative inexpensiveness: while the daguerreotype was developed on silver-plated copper sheeting that had to be encased in a protective glass-and-leather enclosure, the tintype used a small piece of cheaper enameled iron sheeting which was quite stiff and durable without the required purchase of a frame. Because the tintype provided a durable image quite inexpensively and quickly, it took hold as the first popular form of portraiture that was truly accessible to the working classes.

Men in 1885
Necktie style of man on left indicates 1885.
WRVM P.O. 634
  Between 1860 and 1900, in almost every town in America, one could find a street stand or carnival booth offering tintype portraits. The portraits measured about 2.5 x 3.5 inches and were intended as portable keepsakes. Although the image quality was not as high as the daguerreotypeâs, it required a shorter exposure time so resulted in a more natural representation of its sitter.
Isabelle Gove (left) in 1905.
Isabelle Gove (left) was born in 1870,
placing this photo around 1905.
WRVM P.O. 634
  This museumâs collections contain twenty-four tintypes, ranging from about 1870 to 1905, four of which are shown here. Only a few came to the Museum with identifying information. However, we may estimate their dates of origin using clues from the subjectsâ clothing and hairstyles÷as well as the physical attributes of the tintypes themselves. (Different processes used throughout the years resulted in either black or brown tones in the finished product.) Based on our estimates, most of our tintypes date to the 1880s, with several possibly being even older.
Group photo in 1880's
The womenâs hairstyles÷flat, not poufy÷suggest the 1880s.
WRVM P.O. 634

These tintypes are remarkable in that they represent a good portion of the museumâs earliest photographs of or from the families of the white settlers of Auburn (then Slaughter). But more importantly, with their details of dress, posture, and expression÷some of which seem familiar, others strange÷they give us a tangible connection to the lives of those who came before us.

Alyssa Shirley Morein