Early Photography and Gem Tintypes

Okay, so maybe you are slightly familiar with early photography, but are unfamiliar with gem tintypes. What is a gem tintype? Well let’s go ahead and define what a tintype is first. A tintype is a photograph that is on a thin piece of jappaned (enameled black) iron. Despite the name, it’s actually not made of tin. Tintypes were invented in 1858 and were popular especially in the United States during the 1860’s, during the American Civil War. A tintype comes in different sizes but the most common size is about 2 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. Many of the mid-nineteenth century photos you see in history books are copies from tintypes.

So what is a gem tintype? A gem tintype is a very small tintype. A popular comparison to its size is to a postage stamp, or anywhere from 1/2 inch to 1 1/4 inches. A gem tintype, also called a “gem”, was able to be made because of multiplying cameras.

Multiplying cameras basically were made by adding more lenses into the traditional camera box. Now, instead of producing a single image on a iron sheet, multiple reflections of the same image were exposed onto a full sheet, only in smaller sizes. Once exposed, the sheet would be cut and the photos were handed to the subject, much like wallet size photos today.

Gems were usually portraits and were often mounted onto ornately-designed paper sleeves, lockets, jewelry, or envelopes and mailed to loved ones. These were now cheaper than larger tintypes or any other form of photography at the time because they were so cheap and easy to produce. Because of this, many are now unidentified. Interestingly, as cheap as they were, often gems were still hand-tinted, or hand painted.

Gem tintypes are still fascinating to many photographers and early photograph collectors. Many photographers still practice the tintype collodion process while some modern artists even gather up lots of originals and cut up and paste them onto modern day jewelry to sell. Regardless of their ultimate fate, gem tintypes should be cherished in their time in photographic history and today as the historical treasures they are.

J.F. Borno enjoys writing about early photographic processes and enjoys learning more about tintypes and gem tintypes.

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