|Did Your Ancestors Say
Part I: Photos Are Nothing New
By Candice Lynn Buchanan
The origin of saying “cheese” has not been discovered, but the way the word turns a mouth into a smile probably has something to do with it. For that very reason your ancestors probably didn’t actually say “cheese” since they were seldom encouraged to smile for their photos, but it is more likely than not that they did sit in front of a camera much as you do today and receive instructions from a photographer.
Photo taking started much earlier than most people realize and was also much less expensive and much more common than generally believed.
Any ancestor whose life extended into the 1840s could have had his likeness captured in a daguerreotype. Invented in 1839, this type of photo is easy to recognize by its mirror like surface; the cased plate must be held at the right angle in order to see the image. Marketed as a “mirror with a memory,” the image is very distinct, but very fragile. If you have a daguerreotype in your family collection do not try to clean it without professional help because you may actually clean away the image.
Cheaper and faster to create than the daguerreotype was the ambrotype which arrived on the scene in the mid-1850s. Also cased for protection, this image is caught on glass and though not as brilliant as the daguerreotype in tone or detail, this type of photo was more easily available and was a popular choice before and during the Civil War.
At each tier of photo development the process became easier and therefore cheaper, allowing greater numbers of the population to participate. Before photography, hand painted portraits may have only allowed the nobility to see their images captured; daguerreotypes provided the opportunity to the professional class; ambrotypes opened the studio door to more people than ever before, as the middle class could now afford to partake in the new service. Accordingly, the rapid growth in development that followed brought photographs into the price range of most working class U. S. citizens by the 1860s.
Tintypes, which came quickly after the ambrotype, had enduring popularity. Introduced in the mid-1850s, they remained common until the turn of the century, lasting longer with street venders due to the cheap set up, simplicity and speed of the process – the customer had the photo in hand in just a few minutes. The tintype was processed much like the ambrotype except onto metal (actually an iron plate, not tin) instead of glass. The image came out reversed, like a reflection in a mirror. Though these images were sometimes cased to look like their predecessors, they did not require casing for protection. The durable tintype material, unlike the photo types before it, could be easily carried, mailed, cut to fit into jewelry or mounted into photo albums. Civil War soldiers could send tintypes home to families without fear of damage.
If you think your family would never have gone to town to take photos, consider the traveling photographers who used the simplicity of the tintype process to visit encampments or go knocking on doors.
In 1859, the first card mounted photograph hit the United States and enjoyed a soaring popularity in the 1860s and 1870s. The Carte-de-Visite (CDV) is easy to spot because it fits in the palm of your hand. Generally 4 ½ x 2 ½ inches these photos take their name from the French “calling card.” Like the tintypes the CDVs were cheap. The CDV also enjoyed an added convenience in the ease of making multiple copies. One Greene County CDV from a local photographer advertises, “a dollar a dozen.” These photos were created from a negative that a photographer could store and retrieve at anytime to make reprints for a customer.
The CDV began a photograph craze in the U. S. initiating the first photo albums, often kept by young ladies who would insert into precut holes the photos of family, friends, celebrities and visitors who left this “calling card” behind.
The Cabinet Card, introduced for portraits in 1866, closely resembles a CDV but is distinguishable by its larger size, generally 4 ½ x 6 ½ inches. By the mid-1880s the larger Cabinet Card had become more popular than the small CDV and eventually phased out CDV production. The larger photos showed faces more clearly and allowed for framing and display that was easy to see.
In the 1860s and 1870s photographers had already begun copying earlier pictures. It is very possible to have a card mounted photograph that was actually taken of an earlier daguerreotype or ambrotype image. Or a Cabinet Card copied from a CDV.
There are many ways to date and understand, even learn from, your family photos. Determining the type of photograph you are examining is a good first step.
In the next segment on this subject I will present some clues you can easily recognize to learn more about when and where your family photos were taken, and other useful details that may help you learn more about your family using your photos as clues. If you want to find out more now you may want to look for the books below online or at your favorite bookstore:
Uncovering Your Ancestry through Family Photographs, by Maureen Taylor (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000). See www.familytreemagazine.com for similar titles and a regular online column by this author. She takes photo query submissions so if you have a real mystery write to her and maybe she will feature your photo in her next column.
Dating Old Photographs 1840-1929 and More Dating Old Photographs, both by Family Chronicle Magazine. See www.familychronicle.com for details. These books are full of dated photos you can use to visually compare with your pictures.
All material within this
web site has been compiled by Candice Buchanan <firstname.lastname@example.org>
(63 W. Franklin St.; Waynesburg, PA 15370).
Data sources documented whenever possible. Contributors credited for shared information. Questions, feedback and contributions welcome.
Copyright © 2003-2008 Candice Buchanan. All rights reserved.