Why is Cyrus smiling? Tintypes!

Cyrus Clark (tintype, detail). Photo courtesy Steven Clark Van Slyke. Click to open image in new window.

Dating and interpreting old photographs, part 3 of 4

For our next to last look at photographs from the family of early Mequon settlers Cyrus and Sarah (Strickland) Clark we’ll start to take a closer look at three images made with another popular photographic process from the era, the tintype. We will examine the clothing, props, backgrounds and other aspects of the photographs, learn more about the tintype process, and try and determine when the photos were taken1. Once again, thanks to Clark and Strickland descendants Steven Clark Van Slyke and Lynnette Thompson for the photos and family history assistance.

If you’re new to the discussion, I recommend you read our previous post, Cyrus Clark’s Cabinet Card, and click the links there for additional background on the family and the other Clark portraits. To begin, let’s take a quick look at all three of our Cyrus Clark tintypes:


All of today’s photos are examples of the popular tintype2 process. The tintype (also called melainotype or ferrotype) was first described in France in 1853 and was patented and in use in the United States by about 1856. The “wet” tintype process is similar to that of the earlier ambrotype, but instead of the ambrotype’s glass support for the photographic chemicals, the tintype uses a lacquered iron (not tin) plate. In the tintype process,

a very underexposed negative image was produced in the emulsion. Its densest areas, corresponding to the lightest parts of the subject, appeared gray by reflected light. The areas with the least amount of silver, corresponding to the darkest areas of the subject, were essentially transparent and appeared black when seen against the dark background provided by the lacquer. The image as a whole therefore appeared to be a dull-toned positive. This ability to employ underexposed images allowed shorter exposure times to be used, a great advantage in portraiture.


Compared to earlier photographic methods, tintypes were very inexpensive, easier and much quicker to make and—being thinner, lighter and more durable—they were easy to put in a pocket and share with others. Tintypes came in a variety of sizes. The largest comprised a full photographic plate, 11 x 14 inches. Special cameras were also available with multiple lenses that allowed the photographer to make multiple identical tintypes with one exposure.

All three of our tintypes are roughly 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, the so-called “sixth-plate” size. And, like almost all tintypes, the images are brown in color; this is part of the chemistry of the materials used, and is not an added tint.

The finished tintype could be placed in an ornamental case for protection, but tintypes were often left uncased, or placed in simple paper sleeves. At least two of today’s images originally came with paper sleeves. One of the sleeves is deteriorated and is not shown. The image of Cyrus standing and smiling has its original white paper sleeve with red borders and curlicues at the corners, very typical for the era. We’ll talk more about the sleeves in our next post. As is often the case with tintypes, there is no photographer’s imprint on either side of today’s images, or the paper sleeve.3

Tintypes became very popular during the presidential election of 1860 and the Civil War, though they were soon displaced by the better image quality of paper-mounted albumen prints (such as the credit-card sized carte de visite, and the larger cabinet cards, like those of Cyrus Clark and Sarah Strickland Clark). Even so, the tintype process remained popular into the early twentieth-century, especially among itinerant photographers and at fairs, carnivals, boardwalks and the like.

Is he thinking of the grapes?

One of today’s photographs shares a number of similarities with the cabinet card portrait of Cyrus that we examined in our previous post. Here’s a full view of our first tintype, for reference:

Cyrus Clark, tintype. Photo courtesy Lynette Thompson. Click to open larger image in new window.

Looking at Cyrus

The subject is an older white man, seated in a chair, photographed in 3/4-view. His legs are uncrossed. His right hand is on his right leg. To his left is a small, rather tall, pedestal table covered with a light-toned cloth decorated with a bold floral or geometric print in darker hues and with a looping, crocheted-style border. His left elbow rests on the table, hand raised and holding what appears to be a bunch of grapes.4 In front of his elbow is a round, shiny object, perhaps an apple. The subject is posed in front of a plain, flat, light-colored background or wall.

He is looking straight ahead, past the upheld grapes. His chair, head and body are all aligned, off-center to his left. He is generally well-groomed. His hair appears white, or very blond. It is long on the sides, covering all of his right ear, but probably ends above the collar of his coat. He has a high, receding hairline—more so than in the cabinet card—and the hair seems to still be parted from the right side, over the top to the left. The hair on both sides of the head is somewhat longer and less neatly trimmed than in the cabinet card. He has a very full and well-groomed beard, perhaps 6 or 8 inches long. His eyes are harder to see clearly in this tintype, but appear to be light-colored, possibly blue. His lips are closed, neither smiling nor frowning, his head tilted just slightly to his left. His expression appears calm and thoughtful.

His pose and, occasionally, the quality of the image make it difficult to make certain observations about some of his clothing and accessories. His shirt is white, possibly a starched shirtfront. His collar and tie, if he is wearing either, are not visible because of his beard or perhaps the photographic image is underexposed. No shirt buttons or stickpins are visible. The shirt cuffs are mostly hidden in his coat sleeves.

Over the shirt, and under his coat, is a dark (black?) vest, medium-low cut. It may have lapels. Three bright (metal?) buttons are visible and there is possibly a shiny black top button on this single-breasted (?) vest. The only jewelry visible in the photo is Cyrus’s watch chain. It appears to be bright metal, with long, rectangular links, and a small, thin, (cylindrical?) watch fob. The chain is presumably attached to a pocket watch in his vest pocket.

Over the vest, Cyrus is wearing a long, loose-cut, double-breasted frock coat with peaked lapels. The coat is a solid color, lighter than the vest, possibly a charcoal- or medium-gray or other dark color. The coat’s collar is darker, possibly black, and possibly a different fabric. The coat appears to extend at least below Cyrus’s knees. Some of the coat buttons are visible; they may be covered by fabric or thread, and they match the color of the coat.

Cyrus’s fly-front trousers are long. The trouser fabric is patterned with vertical stripes in at least three shades, and appear to be generously cut. The bottom of the trouser legs and his footwear are not visible.

Original or copy?

There is some damage to the image, including a bit of image loss to the background above the table and what appear to be scratches in the varnish in the upper right quadrant. There is also a mysterious teardrop shaped line under Cyrus’s right eye; I suspect this is later damage and not a poorly done “enhancement” by the photographer.

Even though this image I have posted is a copy of a copy of the original tintype in Lynette Thompson’s possession, this is clearly an original tintype photograph of Cyrus Clark, and not a heavily-retouched, 19th-century copy of a faded original.

Same sitting? Same studio?

This tintype and Cyrus’s cabinet card seem uncannily alike in some ways. Compare the cabinet portrait and the tintype:

Click and slide the < > arrows left and right to compare images.

There are many similarities between the two photos. Although the props may differ (book vs. grapes), the sitter’s pose, the angle of the chair and subject in relation to the camera, and the look of the table and tablecloth are very much alike. The clothing is similar, as well.

There are differences. In the tintype, Cyrus has less hair on the top of his head and the hair on the sides of the head is longer and a bit wilder (or not so thoroughly “trimmed” by the retoucher’s pencil). In both photos he wears an old-fashioned long frock coat, but the one in the tintype has jauntier peaked lapels and contrasting collar. And instead of plain trousers, he’s wearing stripes, similar to what the Edwardians would later call morning dress trousers. The image of his right hand is somewhat indistinct, but his left hand is more clearly photographed, showing a large hand with muscular fingers and clean fingernails.

Most tellingly, Cyrus just looks older in this tintype. His head is a little balder, his hair and beard a little longer and wilder. In this tintype, his face is less full, eyes a little more sunken, and the bags under his eyes more pronounced. His gaze seems less clear in the tintype, though that may be due to technical faults in the original photograph.

When was Cyrus’s tintype made?

As in his cabinet card, Cyrus’s long, loosely cut frock coat in this tintype is a style from an earlier era, possibly 1850-1860, although the coat itself, with it’s jaunty collar, peaked lapels and double-breasted styling, may have been made decades later. The beard, hair length, and hair style suggest a look common around 1860-1870 or so. And even though an older man, such as Cyrus Clark, might favor hair styles, fashions—even the actual clothes—from earlier in his life, the clothes in this photo seem newer and more stylish than the heavily retouched clothes in the cabinet card. Those are my first impressions, based on limited reference resources. I’d need to spend much more time with additional clothing history books to see if my impressions are correct.

Who made this tintype?

The surface similarities between the two photos make one wonder if the same photographer or studio took both photographs. At the moment, we don’t have enough evidence to know one way or the other. But I do have a theory.

I think—or perhaps I should say, I’m guessing—that Cyrus Clark’s cabinet card and tintype photographs were likely made in the same studio. But it was probably not Cook Ely’s Oshkosh studio. I have found several dozen Cook Ely photographs online and not one of them is a tintype. We know he made 14 x 17 photographs, cabinet cards, and some stereographic photos—mostly using paper-mounted albumen (and similar) print processes—and he must have made cartes de visite. But I’ve yet to see a Cook Ely tintype. Of course, the few dozen images online only represent a fraction of Ely’s output, and tintypes usually lack a photographer’s imprint or other identification. But in any case, we know Ely aspired to be a prize-winning artistic photographer, and by the 1870s or 1880s, tintypes were not a medium for high-quality photo work.

My guess is that Cyrus sat for both photos at different times at the same studio, perhaps at his home in Madison, South Dakota, perhaps while in Oshkosh, at the studio of one of Cook Ely’s predecessors. I think there is a gap of at least five or ten years between the younger Cyrus of the cabinet card and the older Cyrus of this tintype. Perhaps the early photo dates from around 1870-75, when Cyrus was 55-60 years old, and the tintype from around 1880-85, when he was 65-70?

And then at some time in or after 1884, Cyrus took the fading original of the earlier photo to Cook Ely’s Oshkosh studio and had one or more cabinet card copies made. And I think Ely did the best he could when reproducing the older photo, including painting in a pattern on the washed-out table cloth that resembled a similar pattern on the newer tintype .

That’s my wildly speculative theory,. What’s yours? Let me know in the comments, below.

Next time: the last two Cyrus Clark tintypes. Cyrus is older, the fashions are newer, and maybe Ida Estella (Clark) Van Slyke can help us determine when the pictures were taken.5


  1. I’m also using this post to experiment with some of WordPress’s photo gallery options. Let me know what you think of them.

  2. For more on the tintype process, here’s a link to a short and informative video of how tintypes are made. The Wikipedia Tintype article gives a quick overview of the process and its history. And yes, tintypes are made on iron plates, not tin. If you have an old photograph and a magnet will stick to the back of the image, it’s a tintype.

  3. From August 1, 1864, through August 1, 1866, the federal government taxed photographs. The photographer had to affix a revenue stamp to the back of the image and initial and date it. These stamps look much like a postage stamp. If you find one on a tintype, or any photograph, be sure to keep it with the photo. It will often provide the precise date that the tintype was created.

  4. Yes, the section header is a play on the title of Boucher’s famous painting. Sorry about that. Can’t be helped.

  5. Yep, this was originally going to be one post discussing all three tintypes. But since I’m running long, I’m going to split the post in two and finish next time.

5 thoughts on “Why is Cyrus smiling? Tintypes!

  1. Yes, the photo comparison feature is pretty slick, The tintype Cyrus does look older.
    A couple of questions:
    1. When did newspapers first start printing photos?
    2. Is there a safe way to clean the surface of a tintype? And the cabinet card photos?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good questions!

      When did newspapers start printing photos is a question with a complicated set of answers. The earliest photos to appear in print, starting in London circa 1840s, had to be engraved for printing. A famous U.S. example of this kind of work are the Brady-Gardner Civil War photos, engraved and published during the war in Harper’s Weekly.

      The first halftone (not engraved) photos in a newspaper were published in the New York “Daily Graphic” in March, 1880. Other papers began to adopt the technology in the following years. The “Golden Age” of photojournalism dates from the 1930s-50s or so.

      It’s an interesting and complicated history, and I’m not doing it justice here. The Wikipedia Photojournalism article is a decent place to start. And the Library of Congress has an interesting overview as part of their guide to the Prints and Photographs collection.

      Now to your most important question, is there a safe way to clean the surface of a tintype? Bearing in mind that I’m not a conservation expert, but I’ve read the advice of a few: NO. To the best of my knowledge, there is NOT a safe way to clean a tintype. Remember: the surface of the tintype is both the negative and the positive image. Any damage (and that might include any attempt at cleaning) will result in irreparable damage to the image.

      This advice applies to most historical photographs, including tintypes, cabinet cards and such. For some general preservation advice, here’s a link to the Library of Congress photo preservation page. You’ll see there a number of simple and affordable suggestions to protect and reduce further damage to your collection.

      Also on that page is a link to the AIC, the American Institue for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.They have a digital directory of conservation specialists. You might want to contact one of them for accurate specialist advice.

      A few key pieces of advice for all historic photographs:
      • Make really accurate, high-resolution, scans and save as TIFF files (JPEG is OK in a pinch, but TIFF maintains the quality of the digital image no matter how often it is copied and saved.)
      • Have retouchings and repairs made to a copy of the digital image. There are pros that can work wonders with Photoshop.
      • Make modern prints of the scanned (and, if you prefer, restored) photos. Keep the original photo safe (see those Library of Congress recommendations) and display the modern copies.If the copy fades in the light, you can always print a new one from the archived TIFF or JPEG file.
      • If you have a badly deteriorating photo, you might use the AIC’s “Find a Conservator” directory and hire a pro. Here’s the link.

      Good luck and let me know if you need more info.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Reed. I’ve been reading microfilmed newspapers from 1883 to 1915 and it’s amazing how “text dense” they are compared to modern era papers with all their photos, which led to my curiosity. I imagine that small town papers like the Madison Daily Leader in South Dakota were the last to be able to afford and justify the incorporation of photos into their prints.

        My tintypes and cabinet card photos are in pretty good condition and I have scanned them. So, based on your answer I will just leave them alone and keep them safely stored.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hehehe. Watch out, Steve! Those old newspapers can become highly addictive.

          I suspect you’re right about the slower spread of photos to small town newspapers. But even without photos, some of those early papers often have interesting woodcuts and engravings that often accompany advertising text. This seems to be more common in larger cities (Milwaukee, for example) and less common in the smaller towns.

          The link in my earlier comment to the Library of Congress’s photo preservation tips page has good suggestions and links to archival suppliers.

          And there’s the “Grandma Rule” that former Smithsonian Institution curator Don Williams invokes. Paraphrased, it suggests that special/fragile/old things should be kept like Grandma: dry, safe, not too hot or cold, not too dry or humid. And, like Grandma, they should not be kept in the basement or the attic.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Tintypes! part 2 | Clark House Historian

Comments are closed.