Early Photography in the Osborne Library


Early photography consisted of a variety of processes, the most familiar being the daguerreotype, the ambrotype and the tintype. They were products of 19th-century experiments to capture images on paper, glass, or metal. The Osborne Library has been acquiring textile-related images since its inception and we are most excited when we can add a daguerreotype, an ambrotype and even the more common tintype to the collection. These three processes created a direct positive image that makes them one-of-a-kind.

Daguerreotypes were popular from the early 1840s until the 1860s. Making a daguerreotype was a complicated process. Suffice it to say, they are a positive image on a thin copper plate coated with silver and polished. Daguerreotypes had a relatively long exposure time. The plate was protected from damage by glass and a brass mat, as well as by a decorative hinged case or frame. Daguerreotypes were made in many different sizes and are easy to identify as they appear either as a negative or a positive depending on the angle at which they are held. Two examples from the collection are depicted below. One shows a young woman standing behind a power loom and is considered the earliest view of its kind—making it one of our prized possessions. By examining the woman’s dress and hair style, it has been dated from about 1848 through 1852. The other, from about 1850, shows the Sutton’s (Woolen) Mill in North Andover, Massachusetts.


The ambrotype was yet another direct positive image and was produced mainly from about 1855 to 1865 but can be found through the 1870s. It was much cheaper to produce than a daguerreotype. It consisted of a positive silver image with a collodion binder on dark glass or glass backed with velvet or black varnish. Unlike the daguerreotype it appears as a positive image no matter what the angle at which it is held. An ambrotype, like the daguerreotype, often had a decorative brass mat and was enclosed in a hinged case for protection. Below are two examples from our collection. The first pictures an elderly gentleman seated before a carding machine and is dated about 1860. A carding machine cleaned and straightened fibers in preparation for yarn manufacture. The second image, which shows the full case, is of a young woman holding a shuttle and is dated between 1862 and 1870. The case was made much earlier, in 1857, in Northampton, Mass.


Tintypes first appeared in the 1850s and continued to be made into the early 20th century. They were made of iron, not tin, and are sometimes called ferrotypes. Again, they are positive images but on a metal support that was lacquered black or brown. They were cheaper to produce than an ambrotype or daguerreotype so they are more easily found by collectors. Some were enclosed in cases or paper mats. If in a case, they often look like an ambrotype and the only way to tell the difference, aside from taking it apart, is to place a magnet against the glass. Here are three examples below. The first, without a mat or case, is of a young woman holding a bobbin and shuttle and was made about 1865. The second is also of a young woman holding a shuttle with her scissors hanging from a ribbon. It is surrounded by a pressed paper frame and is dated about 1870-1875. The third is cased with a decorative mat and shows two young men around 1862 placing stockings on molds.


Sources: Reilly, James M. Care and Identification of 19th-Century Photographic Prints. [Rochester, NY]: Eastman Kodak Co., 1986. Ritzenthaler, Mary Lynn, et al. Administration of Photographic Collections. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1984.

Clare Sheridan

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