Monday, June 17, 2013

A Brief History of 19th Century Photographs (Part 1)

A Brief History of 19th Century Photographs for Historical Writers (Part 1)
By Natalie-Nicole Bates

For historical writers, the various types of photography available in the 19th century can be a valuable resource.  My short paranormal, Antique Charming is centered around a Victorian-era cabinet card. My paranormal romance novella, SEE ME, is also inspired by 19th century photographs. Getting your terms right is essential for any writer interested in using photography in their historical manuscript. It’s more interesting to say your heroine in 1850 was holding in her hands a beautifully encased Daguerreotype of her beloved, rather than just a simple photograph.

Let’s begin with the earliest form of photograph and my personal favorite-

The Daguerreotype-The first successful photographic process made on a light sensitive silver coated metallic plate. The surface of daguerreotype is mirror-like and unstable. You must tilt the image to view it properly. Daguerreotypes are most often displayed in thick glass covered cases. Daguerreotype photography rapidly spread throughout the United States in the early 1840’s.

                                              Example of a Daguerreotype from my collection

Because of its instability and labor-intensive process, the daguerreotype was quickly replaced in 1854 by

The Ambrotype- This photographic process was done by imaging a negative on glass, backed by a dark surface. The ambrotype was much less expensive to produce and lacked the shiny surface of the daguerreotype, but the general consensus was the ambrotype was visually unappealing.
By the mid 1850’s, the ambrotype was supplemented by

                                                     Example of an ambrotype from my collection

The Tintype- Introduced in 1856, the tintype was a positive photograph made directly on an iron plate varnished with a thin sensitized film.  Tintype “film” is the same as the final print, so the image appears reversed (left to right) from reality. Compared to earlier techniques, the tintype is simple and fast to process, which made it a hit at carnivals and fairs. The photographer could prepare, expose, and varnish tintypes within a few minutes and have it ready to present to the customer. There is no actual tin used in the process. Like the daguerreotype and ambrotype, tintypes were often cased.

The Carte de Visite is a photograph the size of a visiting card and became enormously popular around 1854 when they were regularly traded among family and friends. It was usually made of an albumin print, which was a thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card. By 1870, carte de visite was supplemented by the popular

                                                  Example of Carte de Visite from my collection

Cabinet Cards- which is essentially the same process as carte de visite. The main difference is the cabinet card is larger and usually included the photographer’s logo and advertised their services on the reverse side of the photo. Around 1880, the cabinet card displaced carte de visite.

For approximately three decades following the 1860’s, the commercial portraiture industry was dominated by carte de visite and cabinet cards. However, the public was soon clamoring for outdoor and candid photographs as well as varying sizes of photos which could be enlarged or small enough to collect in scrapbooks. 

With the affordable Kodak Box Brownie camera introduced in 1900, the public rapidly began taking their own photographs and led to the decline of the cabinet card.

I hope this brief history of 19th century photography will spark your interest and inspire you to look to the beauty of vintage photography when planning your next historical novel.

NEXT UP: Putting these inspirations to work for your next novel.


Natalie-Nicole Bates is a book reviewer and author.
Her passions in life include books and hockey along with Victorian and Edwardian era photography and antique poison bottles. Natalie contributes her uncharacteristic love of hockey to being born in Russia.
She currently resides in the UK where she is working on her next book and adding to her collection of 19th century post-mortem photos.
Visit Natalie online at

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Twitter @BatesNatalie

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