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Tintypes: a precious photographic legacy

Do you have an old tintype among your family photos? Would you like to preserve and frame this precious family legacy?

Tintypes were a 19th century photographic process. A distinctly American form, the tintype was developed on a thin sheet of black or brown japanned (lacquered) iron instead of glass. The process was patented as a melainotype in 1856 and was originally referred to as a ferrotype. “Tintype” was the folk designation that has lasted to this day.

The tintype provided photographers with a faster, cheaper process. For the first time, working people of modest means were able to possess portraits of family and friends. It was a durable photograph that could easily be sent through the mail; protected in an album; or worked into jewelry, buttons, etc. The Civil War was a boon for this process; itinerant photographers near the battlefields did an enormous amount of business. Tintypes continued to be made well into the 20th century.

Tintypes were made in a wide variety of sizes. They are generally of little value (millions were made and many have survived) except for the rare outdoor view. The plate, being thin, is easily bent, which can cause the protective varnish coating (if one was applied) to crack. If moisture gets to the iron support, then rust might blister or pit the image. Restoration methods are limited. The image can easily be copied by current photographic methods that will also enhance the contrast.

If the tintype is in its sleeve, do not remove it if at all possible, for it is part of the original piece.

Tintypes are somewhat light-sensitive, so it is best to hang them in an area with subdued lighting.

Sometimes the corners of tintypes can roll up, and if this is the case, a framer can:

1. Leave them alone and use a lift mat to accommodate this fault.

2. Unroll the curled metal corners, covering the front of the plate with a protective plastic sheet first. A blunt wooden “tool” (metal instruments can scratch the delicate surface) should be used to push the rolled metal outward until it is flat.

3. Snip off the corners, a standard practice by period photographers that a framer should not do without first obtaining your signed disclaimer. Better yet, if that is what you want to have done, cut off the corners yourself.

A professional custom framer can advise the best way to frame your tintype. Your framer may suggest you gather together a few small family mementos to frame along with the tintype. The result will be an interesting shadow box you and your family will cherish for years to come.

Let your imagination soar and provide a beautiful, lasting legacy for your family!

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