Introduction to Identifying 19th Century Images

By Maureen Taylor Back to

Daguerrotype, Unidentified, 1840's. Daguerrotype, Unidentified, 1840's.

Tucked away in family collections, archives and museums are stunning examples of nineteenth century photographic talent. A customer in a photo studio in 1860 could choose from a wide variety of photographic methods—a shiny metal daguerreotype, a glass ambrotype, a varnished tintype or a paper print.  For the contemporary viewer, each of these techniques has distinctive qualities that make them readily identifiable.


While there were individuals experimenting with the daguerreotype process in 1839, the first daguerreotypes appeared in America in 1840 in the hands of Francois Gouraud a contemporary of the inventor, Louis Daguerre. Gouraud traveled throughout the United States giving demonstrations on how to create an image on a silver plate.

These highly reflective images consist of a sheet of polished copper plates coated with a thin layer of silver, covered in light sensitive chemicals and exposed to light. The resulting portraits were initially both crude and miraculous. Never before had individuals seen such a clear (and often unflattering) portrait of themselves. Unfortunately, the first cameras had long exposure times. This meant holding a particular pose and expression for a length of time. One move resulted in a blurry image.

These images were one of kind. The technology did not exist to make multiple copies. Daguerreotypists learned to make duplicates of the image by having an individual sit for additional portraits or by making copies of the original. Mass-production of daguerreotypes often became the responsibility of an engraver who made prints based on the image.  Early daguerreotypes are generally laterally reversed images. There were reversal prisms but they could be problematic so not every photographer used one.

Even with this limitation, the daguerreotype became an instant success. In the United States, whole industries developed to produce the metal plates, chemicals, and cases necessary for this new process. Anyone with the technical knowledge and the financial resources to purchase equipment and supplies established themselves as daguerreian artists.

Daguerreotypes came in variety of sizes from a mammoth plate (8 1/2 inches in height) to the small ninth plates (2 1/2 inches in height). Popular portrait sizes were the quarter, sixth and ninth plate.

Customers sat for a likeness then carried home their image in a case made of wide variety of materials from paper to mother of pearl inlay. During the 1860s, cases made of gun cotton, ether and gutta percha allowed factories to press elaborate designs into their hard shell cases.

When handling daguerrotypes, don’t take these fragile images apart. One touch can erase part of the image. To identify a daguerrotype, hold the image at an angle, and if the photographic image disappears (and you see a mirrored image) then it is a daguerrotype.


Ambrotype. Unidentified woman, 1850′s. Notice that parts of the backing has fallen off showing the negative qualtities of the image.

In the mid-1850s James Ambrose Cutting patented positive images.  It is thought that the name for these Ambrotypes derives from his middle name. Popular from the late 1850s to circa 1870, they consist of a piece of glass coated with photo chemicals in a suspension of collodion, (a mixture of gun cotton and ether). This creates a negative image but when backed with a dark piece of cloth or fabric it becomes positive. Cased images consisted of an image, the cover glass, mat, case and preserver. Just like the daguerreotype, ambrotypes were a one of a kind image. They were available in the same sizes as a daguerreotype. A way to identify an ambrotype without taking it apart is to look for missing pieces or holes in the backing material. These dark areas will appear transparent.


Tintype. Unidentified woman, 1880′s.

The third type of cased photograph resembles a daguerreotype only because it is an image on metal. Unlike the daguerreotype and ambrotype more than one tintype could be made at a sitting. It was inexpensive to produce, and it took less than a minute to walk out of a photographer’s studio with one in hand. Some photographers used special multi-lens cameras to produce additional individual exposures. Tintypes, like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes were not made used a negative.

Tintypes or ferreotypes have a fascinating history. It was the first photographic process invented in the United States and its longevity is only surpassed by the paper print. A chemistry professor in Ohio patented the process in 1856 and it survived until the middle of the twentieth century.  While the name suggests the metal was tin, it was actually iron sheets cut into standard sizes.  The sizes initially corresponded to ambrotypes and daguerreotypes so that in the early period they could be placed in cases.  Other sizes were introduced later such as the “thumbnail or gem” tintype made to fit into a specially created album. These tintypes were literally no larger than a thumbnail, thus their nickname. Tintypes can be found in either a case, a paper sleeve with a cut out for the image or lacking their protective covering.  A whole plate measures 6 ½ x 8 ½ inches while gems are approximately 1 inch square.

Paper Prints

Cabinet card. Unidentified gelatin print, circa 1898.

In 1839, an inventor in England, William Fox Talbot, experimented with paper photographs. His very rare prints, called photogenic drawings used ordinary table salt (sodium chloride) as part of the process to prepare the substrate, which made it more receptive to silver nitrate.  Talbot continued to improve the Calotype process. This is essentially the same system, negative and paper print, which we use today.

The most popular type of paper print was the card photograph, which was essentially a paper print mounted on cardboard stock. Cartes de visite, cabinet cards, and stereographs are three types of card photographs. The size of the card varied from cartes de visite which were 2 1⁄2″ x 4 1⁄4″ to the Imperial or life-size cabinet cards, which were 6 7⁄8″x 9 7⁄8.” There were at least twenty different types of cards. By the 1880s, cabinet cards replaced the smaller cards in popularity.

It’s unclear who invented the small card photographs known as cartes de viste, but they became popular in 1854 when Frenchman Andre Adolphe Eugene Disderi developed a camera that could take eight pictures in one negative. The resulting prints, mounted to calling-card sized cardboard, began appearing in the United States in 1859.

Collecting cards of royalty and other famous individuals became a pastime encouraged by the mass production of photographs of newsworthy events and famous people. Booksellers, publishers, and photographers sold them to augment their income. They could sell thousands of copies of a popular image.

Carte des visite were primarily albumen prints. These prints consist of paper stock of various thicknesses coated with egg whites and light sensitive silver nitrate. The photographer, immediately prior to use, made this type of paper print on site. Factory-made paper did not become available until the 1870′s

A photograph was taken by exposing a glass negative to light while in the camera. The negative would then be placed against the coated paper and left in sunlight. The exposure to the sun developed the picture. Washing the print in chemical baths and toning it with gold chloride gave albumen prints a brownish color. These early prints tended to fade.

Stereograph. View of Fort Sumter, late 1860′s. Collection of the Library of Congress.

A stereoscopic image is composed of two nearly identical images mounted side-by-side. A special camera with two lenses mounted two and one-half inches apart took the picture. The distance between the lenses matches the average distance between two eyes. This calculation allows the image to appear three-dimensional when examined through a special viewer.

In the 1880s, a new type of paper print appeared. While studios had produced all the card photographs, they were about to have competition from an unlikely source—amateurs. The age of candid photography began when George Eastman developed an easy to use roll film camera that anyone could operate. He called it the Kodak.

In the mid nineteenth century there were basically two types of paper prints. Those considered printing out papers and those called developing out papers. In the first instance light sensitive chemicals applied to paper allow the image to appear during exposure to light. Developing out papers require chemical processing to bring out the image. The first twenty years of the photography utilized silver compounds to create the image. After this initial period, photographers experimented with the light sensitive qualities of other chemicals. The platinum print, created with metallic platinum, had the advantage of resisting fading. The lovely blueprint photograph, the cyanotype, consists of iron salts.

Nineteenth-century paper prints are a rainbow of colors, from the brilliant blue of cyanotypes to the soothing gray of platinum prints. The color may also depend on the toning that has been used to tint the image. It is difficult to identify the specific photographic process used for a card photograph unless you are trained in photo identification using a microscope.

So who took these images? On daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes sometimes photographers scratched their names into the plate or glass, the velvet case liner or the brass mat, but the majority are by unidentified photographers. Daguerreotype plates often have hallmarks on the silver that identify the plate manufacturer.

Whether you’re gazing at the mesmerizing qualities of a daguerreotype, peering at an ambrotype, looking at the muted tones of a tintype or the palette of a paper print, these nineteenth century pictures draw in the viewer enticing them to study the past present in the image. Each one is a historical document worth studying whether you’re interested in the technical expertise or the details in the images.

About the Author

Maureen Taylor
Maureen Taylor is known as the Photo Detective. The Wall Street Journal called her “the nation’s foremost historical photo detective.” Visit her site at