The introduction of the tintype 158 years ago in the US by pioneer Hamilton L. Smith paved the way for photography to become popular there.
The tintype process reached the height of its popularity between the 1860s and the 1870s. According to Wikipedia, tintype photographs are made “by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of iron coated with a dark lacquer or enamel and used as the support for the photographic emulsion.” During its heyday, tintypes were made in formal settings in studios; however, in subsequent decades it became a kind of novelty in which photographers would set up booths in open air fairs, carnivals, and the like.
The process was actually introduced by Adolphe-Alexandre Martin in France three years before Hamilton L. Smith patented the process in the US and William Kloen in the United Kingdom. Aside from being a photographer, Smith was also a scientist, astronomer, and professor. It was in 1854 when he began conducting experiments based on Martin’s descriptions of the process, assisted by seminary student Peter Neff. However, whereas Martin described the use of copper for the plates, Smith found a cheaper alternative in sheet iron. He also japanned his plates “by placing them in a heated oven to slowly dry, which created a hard surface.” A varnish composed of “raw linseed oil, asphaltum, and lampblack” would then be brushed onto the plate, “dried until the brushstrokes disappeared,” and then dried in an oven and polished.
Smith’s efforts finally paid off on this day in 1856 when he received his patent for “Photographic Pictures on Japanned Surface.” Although warmly received by the photographic community, Smith’s achievement was momentarily marred by controversy. You see, around the same time, Victor Griswold was also granted a patent for a similar process called the ferrotype, which utilized iron plates; Martin’s was reportedly marketed as the melainotype (called as such because of “the black background upon which it is taken"). In any case, the dispute was resolved and both eventually became known in the US as tintype plates “because of their shared characteristics with Martin’s tintypes.”
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