The Tintype: Photo Magic of the 19th Century

Tintypes were pretty great inventions.

Today we have our instant photos; we can take a snapshot and immediately see the photo on screen.

In the 19th century this would have seemed like some crazy science fiction written by Jules Verne.

The 19th century equivalent of photo magic was the tintype.

There’s actually no tin in the tintype, despite its name.


A tintype of a man with a great goatee.

Tintypes could be developed completely in a matter of minutes and then handed to the customer, making photography available to everyone for the first time. These portraits started in formal settings and photographic studios, but later photographers would sell them at fairs or carnivals, or at sidewalk sales. They were most popular between 1860-1870.

Adding an element of danger, the chemical process required to develop a tintype included hazardous chemicals.

To lighten up the tintype as much as possible, the developer had to use the chemical potassium cyanide, a powerful and deadly poison. Thankfully, unless the chemical was ingested, it wouldn’t do any harm.


A great tintype of an older woman.

The tintype had the ability to capture a much wider variety of subjects and locations than ever before. It even caught moments of the Civil War and the Wild West.

Tintypes come in a variety of packaging. Some came in quality leather cases, others in thin cards with a window cut out for the photo, and carnival photos with festive poses came in colorful cases.

If you find yourself buying a tintype, it’s important to know to NOT clean its surface, which can be very delicate. See here for more tintype cleaning information. This list is also great for finding the rough date your tintype was made. And if you’re itching to get your own, find some great tintypes here.

Do you own any tintypes? Let us know in the comments!

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