American Gems

In America, where tintype photography first took off in the 1860s, tintypes represent an important national record and cultural bond. Their rise in popularity coincided with the desire for durable keepsakes prompted by the upheavals of the Civil War, which began in 1861. The hold they have on the American imagination is evidenced by the fact that more than 10 craft tintype portrait studios have opened up across the country since 2010; in 2019, the director Greta Gerwig had the entire cast of her film Little Women photographed in tintype. Yet in the UK, this form of photography has been almost entirely forgotten.

American Scott Archer announced his wet-collodion positive technique in 1852. By 1856, the first US patent had been granted and, by the end of the following year, ferrotype plates – the technical name for tintypes – were being commercially manufactured. The tintype trade in America was pursued with great vigour and acumen, but in Britain, to begin with, the attitude towards it was wary. The most influential British Victorian photographers at the time regarded themselves on a noble quest for the advancement of the arts and the sciences, and therefore felt that any commercialisation in their field diminished not only their profession but also their social standing. As a result, the tintype trade in the UK did not get going until the 1870s, and even then, this was only as a result of American agents travelling across the Atlantic to set up shop in Regent Street, London.

Although the trade survived for 100 years, and fine examples still exist, tintypes were always regarded in the UK as the cheapest and lowest form of photography. The photographers themselves were seen as no more than hucksters and drunken ne’er-do-wells peddling cheap tat to undiscerning punters; like silhouette cutters before them, they thought nothing of setting up shop alongside a pub. Tintypes could be produced ‘while-u-wait’, with the rapidity of a Polaroid, which was all part and parcel of the quick thrills tintype experience available at fairgrounds, wakes, village fetes and bustling beauty spots. While it is true to say that many tintypes are low fidelity, they can nonetheless hold interest and great charm.

Tintypes typically ranged in size from full plates measuring 6½in by 8½in, descending down in fractions to the smallest size available, the ‘American Gem’. American Gem plates measured 1in by ¾in. As their name suggests, this was a style of tintype imported from the US. Their diminutive size and lower fidelity seems to have been compensated for by the sheer variety and attractiveness of their decorative mounts. At 36 for 2s 6d – less than a ‘penny a pop’ – they represented the cheapest portraiture on the high street.

Nigel Shephard

Published by The Family Museum

We are an archival project about amateur family photography, based in London and set up by filmmaker Nigel Shephard and editor Rachael Moloney.

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