Until the ambrotype came along in 1851, when an Englishman named Frederick Scott Archer developed an inexpensive technique to expose photographic images on thin sheets of glass, the daguerreotype was the only type of photograph available. Made of copper plates faced with silver, daguerreotypes were expensive and fragile, which is why they were housed in sealed cases to keep their polished surfaces from tarnishing due to contact with fresh air.

In 1854, an American named James Cutting filed three patents for new ambrotype processes—in a curious footnote, Cutting changed his middle name from Anson to Ambrose, perhaps to more closely associate himself with ambrotypes in the same way that Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre was linked by his name to daguerreotypes. Like daguerreotypes and some of the tintypes that came a bit later, ambrotypes were also cased to protect them. It’s not that their surfaces were as sensitive as those of daguerreotypes. Rather, it was the glass ambrotype itself that was at risk.

Hinged cases, usually made of wood and covered in leather, did the trick. The ambrotype was placed within this case in layers, somewhat like a sandwich. There was the ambrotype (with or without a black background, which was required to keep the image from resembling a negative), topped by a layer of brass matting to frame the image and protect it from another layer of glass on top of that. Holding these pieces together was the preserver, also made of brass, all of which was then secured in the case, which was lined with velvet or silk.

The heyday of ambrotypes in the United States was brief, from 1854 to 1865, when uncased tintypes took over. Since early tintypes were also cased in the same way as daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, and because ambrotypes and tintypes look quite similar because they use the same collodion and silver solution to expose the photograph, ambrotype collectors will sometimes place a magnet on a cased photo—if it stays put, then the image behind the glass is a tintype.

Cases are a good way to date an ambrotype, daguerreotype, or tintype. Wood cases were used from roughly 1840 to 1865. While the vast majority of these were covered in leather, some were covered in paper. In both examples, the cases were decorated (often only on the front) and then shellacked or varnished. Beginning around 1856, thermoplastic Union Cases, so-named for the way in which heated shellac made a “union” with its wooden base, were introduced by Samuel Peck. A couple of years later, in 1858, the fronts and backs of wood cases were also produced from pressed wood chips or papier-mâché. These cases featured embossed designs on their fronts, although the relief was not as deep as on the Union Cases.

The liners inside the cases can also help you date an ambrotype. Early liners were made out of plain silk, while those from 1845-on were made of velvet, often embossed with floral or other designs. By 1855, photo studios and case makers were adding their names, and even their addresses, to the embossed image. The brass mats inside the sandwich offer different clues. For example, oval mats were used throughout the era of cased photos, with octagon mats used early and ornate shapes generally coming later. Surface textures on the mats ranged from pebbly and sandy to smooth, while stamped and foil-like mats were in vogue toward to end of the case era (patriotic stamped designs were, of course, popular during the Civil War). As with the mats, preservers got more ornate the closer you get to 1865.

As for the glass bearing the image, these included double-pane glass (one of Cutting’s patents), a purplish-black “ruby” glass, and thin single panes of clear glass, whose backs were either painted with pitch or backed with black cloth or paper. Double-pane glass was used from 1854 to 1858, single sheets were in vogue from 1856 to 1864, and the ruby glass appeared around 1857.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Scrap Album

The Scrap Album

Malcolm Warrington’s The Scrap Album is a handsomely organized site, as you’d expect from an articulate champio… [read review or visit site]

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards

Malcolm Roebuck's tribute to the ornate silk picture bookmarks and postcards ('Stevengraphs') produced by Thomas St… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Crossed Cannons Military Dag Case & Armed Civil War Soldier AmbrotypeCa 1860's Civil War 9th Plate Early Ruby Ambrotype New Hampshire VolunteerNice Antique Double Amberotype In Case Featuring A Druggist Or A Drug Salesman2 Ambrotype Photograph Glass Slides . In CasesExceptional Confederate Civil War Ambrotype With D-guard Bowie In Hand Virginia1850s Ambrotype & Daguerreotype Of Same Woman In Thermoplastic/gutta Percha CaseAntique Ambrotype Photograph Or Daguerreotype 1869 Family Portrait4 Ambrotype Photograph Slides . Unknown Children And Lady ?219: Rare 1/2 Plate Ambrotype Dry Goods Grocery Store In Case W/wagon Men NiceRare 1/2 Plate Gutta Percha Union Case: The Wedding Procession W/ Ambrotype, Nr!Littlefield, Parsons & Co Wedding Procession Daguerreotype 1/2 Plate Union Case322: 1/9 Plate Double Ambrotype Or Daguerreotype Case W/1 Ambro Beard ManLot Of Antique Cased Photo Parts Plastic Case Parts, Foil Frames, Mats, ImagesAntique Daguerreotype Ambrotype Photo In Leather Case W & F Langenheim, Phila PaRare Black African American Woman Smiling 1860 Pre Abolition Slavery AmbrotypeSuperb Ambrotype Photograph Of A Gentleman229: Group Lot 3 Old Photos 1/9 Plate Ambrotype + 1/6 Pl Tintype, 1/9 Framed Tin307: Photo Dealer Lot Union Thermoplastic Case, Parts, Images Etc AmbrotypeAmbrotype Photograph In Its Original Thermoplastic Union CaseCivil War Soldier Ambrotype Photograph..soldier Holding A Sword..no Reserve.. 221: 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Husband + Wife W/pink Tinting In Case 1850s1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of A Lady With Lots Of Gold JewelryDaguerrotype Or Ambrotype Pretty Woman/girl Rosy Cheeks In CaseVery Interesting Ambrotype / Collotype Of Young Girl By Mr. Cave 231: Rare 1/6 Plate Ruby Ambrotype Pretty Girl Strange Style Holds Photo W/id316: 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Man Top Hat Reading Newspaper Red Tint Rare237: 1/6 Plate Double Union Thermoplastic Case 2 Ambrotypes Husband Wife Pair220: 3 1/9 Plate Photos Daguerreotype Tintype Ambrotype Pretty Ladies W/casesCivil War Era Quarter Plate Ambrotype Image Of Three Young Women. Vgc227: Dealer Lot Of 3 Ambrotypes 2 Tintypes 1/9 Plate Portraits Woman Nice Lot321: 1/6 Plate Double Ambrotype Case 2 Ambros Old Man Woman Nice Portraits TintSixth Plate Ruby Ambrotype Of Mourning Woman Civil War Era Hoop Dress319: 1/9 Plate Daguerreotype, Ambrotype Case Union Thermoplastic W/image UnusualRare 1885 Complete Album Of Trip Through Asia And Egypt. 47 Amazing Photographs320: Old Photo Dealer Lot Ambrotype In Double Union Case, Ambro Copy On PaperRare Signed Selleck & Johnson 1/4 Plate Post-mortem Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case234: 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Girl W/native American Beaded Purse Very Cute Hair Tint315: Dealer Lot 1/6 Plate Tintype, Ambrotype Little Girl W/ball Or Toy, Couple1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of A Beautiful Lady In Beautiful Dress & CameoAntique Ambrotype Photo In Union Gutta Percha CaseAmbrotype Union Case1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of A Woman In A Lace Hat And Gold Cameo222: Unusual 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Old Lady Green Pink Tint Wealthy Outfit Lace1/9 Plate Union Case Constitution And The Laws With Ambrotype Photos Krainik 371223: 2 1/6 Plate Photos Daguerreotype + Ambrotype Handsome Young Men Portraits1/6th Plate Ambrotype Man Holding His Hat Wearing A Wonderful Pocket Watch Fob1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of A Young Man & Woman With Pink Cheeks225: 1/9 Plate Ambrotype Silly Strange Man Huge Top Hat Pink Tint Sassy LookExceptional Victorian Handsome Young Man Ambrotype In Gutta Percha Union Case1860s Keene Nh Stereoview, Many Stores & Daguerreotype/ambrotype Signs Seen326: 1/9 Plate Ambrotype Pretty Young Girl Crisp Portrait Nice Hair Contrast EtcOld Ambrotype Photograph Gutta Percha Gorgeous Case324: Dealer Lot Old Photos Daguerreotype Ambrotype Tintype 1/6 Plate + C.1900Antique Ambrotype "teenage Girl" In A Full Union Case Antique Gorgeous Embossed Leather Case Daguerreotype Ambrotype Photo WomanAmbrotype Picture Of Young Lady Victorian Era Post Civil WarBeautifully Composed Lady 'thinker' AmbrotypeCivil War Era Ambrotype Photo Man W/ Book "the Secret Out 1000 Tricks With Cards304: 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Precious Babies Tinted Red + Pink Funny ExpressionsLot Of 3 Antique Ambrotype Photos ( Children)