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Dating Old Photos
Dated Imprints
Public Domain

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

Identifying the Object -- Cased Photographs

Early photographs were delicate, easily damaged by just touching the surface. So they were sold in little cases of leather and wood, or later embossed paper on cardboard over a wooden frame. Some were covered or embellished with mother of pearl. Such cases were originally made for painted portrait miniatures, but the introduction of photography in 1839 caused a massive increase in the number of cases being produced. In 1854 a plastic version was patented -- one the very first uses of plastic -- and those sturdy cases survive in large numbers today. Whatever type of case you find, it is important to recognize which type of image it contains. Of course it is possible to put any image in any case -- I could put a matrix dot-printed digital image in an 1840s case -- but generally, if the image is the original image sold with the case, it will be a daguerreotype, ambrotype, or tintype.


In 1839 the Frenchman Daguerre introduced his photographic process to the amazed world, and photography was born. There were competing process, but by far the vast majority of commercially produced photographs in the 1840s USA were daguerreotypes. Many people still believe the daguerreotype to be the most beautiful of photographic processes, and some are produced by dedicated hobbyists. The daguerreotype uses a silver plated sheet of metal polished to a sheen, and once seen is easily recognized by its mirror-like surface. The plate has to be held at the correct angle to the light for the image to be visible. That image is extremely sharp and detailed on a good daguerreotype. But many times we encounter images so tarnished it is difficult to make out any image at all (don't despair of those, it is sometimes possible to have the image chemically restored by a professional conservator).

Daguerreotypes were one-of-a-kind images. There is no negative involved, each photo was unique. Yes, multi-lens cameras could (and were) used, but each gave a slightly different angle of view, and hence were each unique. Daguerreotypes were also laterally reversed -- a feature you are only likely to notice if there is lettering (a sign, a book title, etc) in the image -- it is backward, like looking a mirror. There were special cameras available that first passed the image through a mirror, and hence corrected them, but they were rarely used, since they required longer exposures. Neither uniqueness nor reversal are unique to daguerreotypes however, those features were shared by the tintype and often the ambrotype as well. They are actually produce upside-down too, but hey, that was easily remedied by the photographer.

If you have an image that has been removed from its case, look at the back, if it is silvery or brass colored metal, then you are probably looking at a daguerreotype. Hold a magnet to that metal, and it is not attracted.

If the image in question is still in its case, do not remove it -- you may damage the image or parts encasing it. Look to see if the surface of the image was originally mirror-like. Does the image disappear in reflection, or look like a negative if you change the angle of view? If so, it is likely a daguerreotype. If you are unsure, take it to a local museum, antique gallery (if you can find one with photographic expertise) or ask around for a collector of antique images.


As soon as the first practical process for making glass negatives was introduced in 1851, photographers recognized that a thin negative viewed with a dark background could appear as a positive image. It was not until 1854 when James Cutting patented a process using camphor and iodide of potassium to give the negatives a better visible tonal range that the ambrotype became a commercially viable alternative to the daguerreotype. Other improvements and patents were made by Cutting and others, so that by 1856 professional photographers began making substantial numbers of ambrotypes.

So an ambrotype is a glass negative, with a dark backing -- either black material painted onto the glass of the ambrotype itself, or a piece of black cloth or paper. Sometimes the inside of the case was painted black. Remember, in a negative, light is dark and dark is light, so the darkest areas on a glass negative are clear glass. The black background shows through the clear glass, so those areas are seen as dark. The most exposed parts of the negatives have the most silver-nitrate in collodion that makes up the emulsion of the negative, and so appear (relative to the pure black background) light in color.

Unfortunately for those trying to learn to distinguish ambrotype from tintype, the exact same description applies to the tintype, except that instead of a glass negative, the image is exposed directly on a blackened iron plate. So the appearance can be almost the same. If you have your image outside its case, the difference is obvious, a glass plate is an ambrotype, an iron plate is a tintype. If you have a strong magnet, it will be attracted to the tintype, but not an ambrotype, even through the thin glass used over these images. This is not a fool-proof test however, as in some instances the black material used behind a glass ambrotype is a blackened sheet of iron plate.

Again, as with the daguerreotype, the image is taken directly in the camera, and hence is one-of-a-kind. But with a glass negative, we can correct the lateral reversal by simply viewing the image from the back side, instead of the front. Depending on how the photographer chose to mount the image and which side the black backing was placed, either view was possible, so some ambrotypes are correct view, and others are reversed.

Ruby ambrotypes are identical to regular ambrotypes, but use tinted glass instead of clear. Typically red (hence the name) glass was used, but occasionally purple, green or other tints were employed. These do not allow the elimination of the black background, as has been claimed by some, but they do change the tone of the image, and were employed especially for the more life-like hue they impart to skin tones (presumably not the green!). These were introduced in 1856 in the USA, and were popular by 1857. They can only be identified for sure by removing the image from the case, unless you have a very good eye and lots of experience viewing the minute variances in appearance between normal ambrotypes and ruby ambrotypes.


As just mentioned in describing the ambrotype, the tintype uses essentially the same emulsion as ambrotypes (at least the early one likely to be found in cases), and are difficult to distinguish unless they are taken out of their case. Sometimes cases are worn, with broken corners, and the image and associated parts (typically a preserver, mat and cover glass) will just fall out if you turn the open case upside down. Then you can see if it is a metal plate or glass. But don't pry the image out if you have never worked with these -- there is a right way to do it and thousands of wrong ways.

The tintype was introduced in the United States in 1856, and continued to be made into the 1950s and are still made by hobbyists, but were rarely placed in cases after the mid-1860s. Cameras with a dozen or more lenses were developed especially for the tintype to make many copies at once, but like the other cased images we have discussed, each image was unique, and usually laterally reversed.

NOTICE: A greatly expanded and PROFUSELY ILLUSTRATED version of this material is being prepared as an ebook - watch this space for availability announcements.

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