Perhaps you’re fortunate enough to have a cigar-box full of 19th century family photos, or maybe you’ve purchased some “instant ancestors” to hang on the wall or display in a cabinet. In either case, you may find it interesting to learn about the different types of early photos.
While there are many types of early photography, here we’ll focus on the commoner sorts. These are the types of photos you’re likely to find in antique stores, local museums, or among your family’s treasures. First, we’ll look at photos printed on glass or metal plates. Then we’ll look at types of photos printed on paper.
Images Printed on Glass or Metal Plates
Ambrotypes: Ambrotypes are photos printed on small glass plates. To protect them, they were usually housed in decorative brown cases. While you will frequently find pre-Civil War and Civil War era ambrotypes, this process was still being occasionally used into the late 19th century.
Without a dark background, ambrotypes seem ghostly and indistinct. But, when placed against black material, the image becomes apparent.
Daguerreotypes: These photos, also often found in decorative cases, are printed on metal. Daguerreotypes are easy to identify, because their silvery surface changes to a negative image when the photo is tilted to the side. Daguerreotypes are often mid-19th century; may are pre-Civil War.
Tintypes (Ferreotypes): Tintypes are printed on thin sheets of iron. Early tintypes were often housed in the same brown cases as ambrotypes and daguerreotypes. Later, tintypes were often put into inexpensive paper sleeves. Some of these photos were enhanced with dots of gold paint for jewelry, or even delicate pink tinting on women’s cheeks. It’s common to find tintypes that date into the early 20th century.
Images Printed on Paper
Egg Albumen Prints: These early photos have the characteristic sepia (brownish) tone that we often associate with 19th century photos. The oldest of these are the small Cartes De Visite (CDV), which are sized 2 1/2 X 4 inches. The later photos are larger, and are called Cabinet Cards. The photographer’s name is often printed on the bottom and/or back of the photograph, which helps us date the photos and tells us where they were taken.
Gelatin Silver Prints: These photos are black and white rather than sepia. As they degrade, they sometimes develop silvery areas. Gelatin silver prints were often enclosed in heavy cardboard frames or folders.
Crayon Portraits: Most Americans think of a box of colorful wax sticks when they think of crayons, but a crayon portrait is very different. These were EXTREMELY popular in the 19th and early 20th century and were often used in homes in place of a more expensive painting.
Crayon portraits were made by drawing over or otherwise enhancing a light photographic image printed on cardboard. Once you’ve seen a crayon portrait, they’re usually easy to recognize and very common to find.
The cardboard on which they are made is sometimes poor quality, however. It and can be brittle and the image can be flaking. Sometimes, the wooden backing on the frame has also caused damage from acid migrating into the paper or from rusty hardware.
Caring for Early Photos
Photos, like almost all other artifacts, are best housed in climate-controlled conditions where temperature and humidity are relatively stable (i.e. NOT in the attic or garage.) Photos are also very sensitive to fading and should not be hung or exposed in direct sunlight or areas of bright light. If you enjoy having your ancestors’ portraits displayed in your home, consider rotating them so that each will have time to “rest” in a dark, safe place. Valuable early photos should be stored in archival boxes, wrapped with pH neutral paper, or stored in archival sleeves.
If you have photos that are rapidly deteriorating, consider having high-quality copies (or at least scans) made of them. Certain materials have what we call inherent vice, and it can be very difficult or impossible to preserve them forever. If you have an especially valuable or precious early photo, a professional photo conservator may be able to help you.
At times, you may need to disassemble an ambrotype or daguerreotype case. Sometimes, you will find a name written inside the case, or even another photo, hidden behind the photo on top. Disassemble the case VERY carefully, however, with the utmost gentleness. Wearing thin gloves is not a bad idea, although if you have no gloves, at least be sure your hands are clean and dry. Do NOT touch the photo’s surface; handle it by the edges.
Carefully slide a thin blade (such as the blade of the 19th century penknife shown here) between the copper frame and the side of the case. Then gently lift the photo from the case. The second photo shows the different parts you may find. You MAY clean the top (clear) glass with water or alcohol, but allow it to dry completely before reassembling the photo.
All of the photos in this article are from our personal collection, but we love to share them with others.