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By Colin Harding on

How to spot a ferrotype, also known as a tintype (1855–1940s)

In our next post about dating your old family photographs, Colin Harding shows you how to identify a ferrotype, more commonly known as a tintype.

The photographic formats we’ve examined so far in this series showing you how to date your old family photographs are daguerreotypes and collodion positives. Next up: ferrotypes, also known as tintypes.

A family at the seaside, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection
A family at the seaside, c. 1880, Science Museum Group collection

I’ll show you how to identify a ferrotype using just a few simple clues, and will then take a look at some examples of ferrotypes in our collection.

About the ferrotype process

Ferrotypes first appeared in America in the 1850s, but didn’t become popular in Britain until the 1870s. They were still being made by while-you-wait street photographers as late as the 1950s.

The ferrotype process was a variation of the collodion positive, and used a similar process to wet plate photography.

A very underexposed negative image was produced on a thin iron plate. It was blackened by painting, lacquering or enamelling, and coated with a collodion photographic emulsion. The dark background gave the resulting image the appearance of a positive. Unlike collodion positives, ferrotypes did not need mounting in a case to produce a positive image.

A young boy poses for his photograph at Epson Derby, 1947, William Jones, National Media Museum CollectionThe huge camera in this photograph is the Diamond Gun Ferrotype Camera, which was made by the International Metal and Ferrotype Company, Chicago, Illinois and dates from the 1920s.
A young boy poses for his photograph at Epsom Derby, 1947, William Jones, Science Museum Group collection. The huge camera in this photograph is the Diamond Gun Ferrotype Camera, which was made by the International Metal and Ferrotype Company, Chicago, Illinois and dates from the 1920s.

The ability to utilise a very under exposed image meant that a photographer could prepare, expose, develop, and varnish a ferrotype plate in just a few minutes. This, along with the resilience and cheapness of the medium (iron, rather than glass), meant that ferrotypes soon replaced collodion positives as the favourite ‘instant’ process used by itinerant photographers.

Why are ferrotypes also known as tintypes?

The ferrotype process was described in 1853 by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin, but it was first patented in 1857 by Hamilton Smith in America, and by Willian Kloen and Daniel Jones in England.

William and Peter Neff manufactured the iron used for the plates, which they called ‘melainotype plates’. A rival manufacturer, Victor Griswold, made a similar product and called them ‘ferrotype plates’.

The term ‘ferrotype’ was in common use, but the public tended to prefer the less formal ‘tintype’, implying the cheap, tinny feeling of the material.

Use these clues to identify a ferrotype

These were made using a thin sheet of iron coated with black enamel and can be identified using a magnet.

Because they are not produced from a negative, the images are reversed (as in a mirror). They are a very dark grey-black and the image quality is often poor.

Ferrotypes were sometimes put into cheap papier-mâché cases or cardboard mounts, but today they are frequently found loose.

Ferrotype of three men, c. 1885, National Media Museum Collection
Ferrotype of three men, c. 1885, Science Museum Group collection

Most ferrotypes are fairly small, about 2×3 inches.

Rust spots
Because they are made on thin sheets of iron, ferrotypes often show evidence of rust spots or blisters on the surface where the enamel has started to lift off.

Examples of ferrotypes in our collection

Ferrotype of a woman, c. 1880, National Media Museum Collection
Ferrotype of a woman, c. 1880, Science Museum Group collection
Two young boys in a goat cart, c.1880, National Media Museum Collection
Two young boys in a goat cart, c.1880, Science Museum Group collection
Family on Hampstead Heath, 9 July 1876, National Media Museum Collection
Family on Hampstead Heath, 9 July 1876, Science Museum Group collection
Ferrotype portrait of a mother and baby, c.1875, National Media Museum Collection
Ferrotype portrait of a mother and baby, c.1875, Science Museum Group collection

Further reading and interesting links

  • Edward M. Estabrooke, The Ferrotype and How to Make It, 1903
  • Audrey Linkman, ‘Cheap Tin Trade: The Ferrotype Portrait in Victorian Britain’, Photographica World, No. 69, January 1994
  • Steven Kasher, America and the Tintype, Steidl, 2008
  • The history of photography in pictures
  • In this video, Mark Osterman from George Eastman House demonstrates how to make a ferrotype:

More in the series

68 comments on “How to spot a ferrotype, also known as a tintype (1855–1940s)

    1. My mother n law has 4 of the ferrotype pictures of her family that’s been passed along through her family

  1. I have just purchased a small 1/8th size early photo. At first I believed it to be a ferrotype, but upon removing the image from the case I discovered it to be what looks like a tintype, but it is printed on an opaque piece of black glass (or very dark purple). I have collected antique images for many years and have never seen this particular approach. It is neither an ambrotype nor a glass negative… as the image is positive and non-transparent. The sitter is a woman dressed in the style of the mid to late 1860s. It is cased in a brown three part case, with the usual frames and mattes you would find in a daguerreotype and is covered with another piece of glass. Any help in identifying this piece would be helpful.

    Thank you,
    Elizabeth Arthur

    1. I have a ton type I found in a old book . It’s a older man sitting on on a chair holding a bottle of whiskey. IAM unsure as to the dating of the price. It’s in poor condition

    2. This sounds like it might be a ruby glass ambrotype— this type of ambrotype uses a dark glass that usually appears red in reflected light instead of the usual dark fabric or varnish backing of the more common clear glass ambrotype. The darkness of the ruby glass gives the same effect as the dark backing in making what is essentially a glass negative appear positive (I’m afraid I have no idea on the science behind how this works!). The ruby glass plate won’t usually appear transparent, as you note with yours, and viewed as intended in the case etc. looks very much like a regular ambrotype or tintype. Very cool!

  2. I purchased a Ferrotype a while back at a flea market. But I’m just dying to know who she is and I can figure out even the date.

    1. I found a picture in my closet and I think my kids are starting to see him around the house and grave them

      1. Sentimental value to the family….It is sad people like you just think of ways to make a profit rather than keep your family pics.

        1. Judge much? She wrote nothing about family pics, and if she had, it’s nobody else’s business what she chooses to do with her own property. Perhaps, she came across a tintype featuring an historic figure or event and is simply asking for advice regarding its potential monetary worth. And I’m sure that you, upon stumbling across a tintype that’s possibly worth a fortune, would be thinking, first and foremost, about its value to mankind and art. Sure you would.

    1. Of course they are! I have some that are over $1500 for presidential ones. Even regular people in Ferrotypes can be worth $$$$$$

      1. Hello, I bought five what I think are tintype photos they are all about the size of a baseball card, Is there a site I can show someone these wonderful items to make sure they are real.

    2. Sentimental value to the family….It is sad people like you just think of ways to make a profit rather than keep your family pics.

      1. Jack- That’s a rather unkind thing to say. I have tons of antique family photos I’d never sell, but recently opened the back of a painting I bought at Goodwill and found antique photos from 1850 (Europe), I’d love to sell. Judging someone from a simple question isn’t fair.

      2. I have some very old one Don’t know who they are but one might be just see James they’re very very old how do I find out about them

      3. I have no children, nor does my brother (we have no real contact with cousins). Some of the old photos left behind have no names nor any identifying information. So, does one just pitch them, or what? If I could make some money off some unknown deceased relative’s photos, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Hell, I have 8 (4 double deckers) burial plots in Alabama that my Grandma purchased in the early 60s I’d love to get rid of.

  3. Hello, I have a photo of my grandmother and her sister on what seems to be a metal plate. Not sure if it’s the type you’re talking about. The photo has come loose from the plate. I need to know what to do. The plate is round

    1. I also have a photo of my father, or that is who my Mother said it was. It is also on a round tin plate. It also has some rust and some of the photo has lifted. I have always wondered how old it is. I’m so happy to find out someone else also has one. I have no idea either if it is of value. Thanks for posting.

  4. Could someone with knowledge about tintypes tell me value?
    I have a album smaller in size then a CD case with 30 portraits of male, female adults and children.

  5. I have an 8×10 that appears to be tin
    The photo of the young man is smooth in texture, however the background is rough as if it was painted in.
    Is there anyway I can discover the date it was taken approx.

  6. I have and old picture of my mother that is in color on tin but the back is a mirror
    it looks like the picture is wrapped around the mirror because it extends around the edges it has no chips any ware on itis 2″x3″ I’ve never seen on like it before , is it very rare and possibly valuable ?

  7. I need help identifying the type of vintage photo. It appears be turn of century, or even from the 1800s of a baby. It appears to be on a very thin backing that feels like metal, but it is very flexible and if not held properly, it can bend when lifting. It is fragile compared to the 1940’s tintype I have.


  8. i have a picture of my grandfather on a metal plate 30mmx40mm under a magnifier it looks like dots turn it in the light it goes negative to positive what is this please

  9. I have a ton type I found in a old book . It’s a older man sitting on on a chair holding a bottle of whiskey. IAM unsure as to the dating of the price. It’s in poor condition

  10. I have two tintype photos that were probably done from somewhere in Canada.Why are mine so dark and hard to see the images through the darkness?

  11. Can you advise how to store tintypes for best preservation?
    ? wrap in acid free paper
    ? then in plastic bag or not
    ? keep dry without temperature extremes
    ? are they light sensitive
    ? any cleaning to try
    ? anything else for best preservation

    1. Never attempt to clean a tintype! Not even with water & a q-tip. Long exposure to sunlight can further weaken the original emulsion and fade the clarity of the image or images. Those tintypes not treated with a preservative shellac when made will over time become too dark to see easily. Luck of the drawer there.
      Thus far, there is no known process by which one can reverse the darkened image. I’m working on it though!
      Acid free paper is fine to store a tintype. If you want to display it though, don’t keep it in direct or indirect sun light. Display it in a shaded case not near a window where light comes in. As to temperature. Keep any tintype in a room of about 70 degrees is OK.

  12. I have 6 Ferrotype/Tintypes that I purchased at antique stores and was wondering if there is a way to clean them without damaging them, so that the people are clearer. a couple of them look as if some spots (mildew??) are on them. I do not trust the webs idea of using saline solution on them as I do not want to damage them further. My 3 newest ones are in cream colored paper mats, one with gold around the photo. I do not know who any of the people are as none have names or are dated. Is there anywhere to post the pics to see if names can be found?

  13. I have an old tintype photo in a pin, one you would wear on clothing. Just curious as to when this was a common practice. Trying hard to date this approximately at least…

  14. I have quite a few and they are all turning dark. I have them stored in complete darkness in acid free surroundings. Can I do anything to stop the decline or reverse it?

  15. My husband has just found a tintype and he thinks his grandmother is on it. It is very dark. Is there any way to clean/restore them?

  16. We have received a photo in a case and was wondering if you could shine any light on it as we are unsure how old it is and how the picture is off
    Not sure of much about it
    hope someone can help us
    Tried to attach a picture but it wouldn’t let me

  17. I have a postcard photo of family members from 1913 and wonder if it was a ferrotype process. The photo is very dark and on the reverse side is printed “copyright 1911 by the Chicago Ferrotype Co.” At first I thought that the photograph was very dark because of poor (cheap) fixing and darkening over time, but then I read about the ferrotype process and wondered whether the postcard was produced by a ferrotype “while-you-wait” process. It is on paper, not metal. It was used as a postcard and mailed to a relative. Thanks.

  18. Yes my mother passed and I found 6 small pictures and they are on metal I guess you can barely make out the pictures i have no idea were she got them but would love to know more about them

  19. Hello. I am wondering if anyone of your experts could help me (or maybe point me in the direction of someone who possibly could) in relation to facial recognition of individuals (that may be famous) in an old tintype photo or two which I own. That would be great. Hope to hear back from you. Yours faithfully. Shaun

  20. I have two tin pictures of my great great great grandfather from Germany when he came to America. They are pictures of him and his Native American wife and children.

  21. Why have you deleted the tin-makers voice, and substituted tinny music instead?
    Surely we would prefer to hear what he was saying?

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