Occupational tintypes are about as cheap today as when they were made, but they offer a valuable look at working-class America during and just after the Civil War
Margaret Mead believed that one of the best ways to understand a culture is to observe how it goes about work. For twenty-three years I accompanied Mead as her photographer, documenting the societies she studied. I still like to photograph people working, and at flea markets and antiques fairs I find myself drawn to old photographs that proclaim their subjects’ occupations. Of these the least valuable in the marketplace are tintypes like the ones shown here: since millions of tintypes survive, of which perhaps one percent are occupationals, they are of little interest to most collectors. But because of their number and their very nature, tintypes may offer the best portrait we have of working-class America in the nineteenth century.
In 1856, seventeen years after Louis Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England announced the first practical methods of making photographs, an Ohio professor named H. L. Smith announced his own process. Exposing a thin sheet of iron coated with collodion to light in a camera, he made a positive image he called a ferrotype, or tintype. Tintypes never caught on in Europe, and even here established studio photographers preferred the results they could achieve with daguerreotypes and ambrotypes to the somewhat dull finish produced by Smith’s technique. But tintypes were sturdy and cheap—a 2’/2-by-3’/2-inch picture cost about a quarter—and during the 1860s and 1870s itinerant photographers worked the countryside making pictures of soldiers and sweethearts and the occasional laborer holding the tools of his trade.
The tintypes on these pages offer us an uncommon record of common people. Here with their tools—and clearly proud of their skill with them—are those who, a century and more ago, leveled the grades and raised the walls and cut the roadways and, for five bucks a week, built the broad, strong platform we live on today.