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    

Confederate Ambrotype Soldier With Bowie Knife And More1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Or Ambrotype Union Thermoplastic Case Unusual Design1/4 Plate Ambrotype Photo - Civil War Soldier - Nr1/6 Plate Union Daguerreotype Ambrotype Thermoplastic Case Floral Frame Pattern1/9 Plate Union Thermoplastic Fancy Case For Ambrotype DaguerreotypeRare 19th C. Ambrotype Photo - Antebellum Woman With Dog - 1/6th Plate - NrHorizontal Men 3 Different Hand Gestures Quarter Plate AmbrotypeHuge Lot 1/9 Plate Ambrotype Photos Portraits W/cases Etc Nice Dealer GroupBlack 1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case Church Window Double ImageUnusual Quadruple 1/9 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Union Case Vertical Design Antique Ambrotype Photo Portrait Of A Man In Early Soft Case,mirrior FinishEarly Hand Tinted Cased Ambrotype Lady Reading, Ringlets In Hair, Fine DressAntique Ambrotype Photograph Of 2 Sisters Knitting Coral GlassJapanese Ambrotype / Antique Glass Photo / C. 1880s / Kimono W/boxCivil War Era U.s. Foot Officer Sword / Scabbard, Ambrotype And Shoulder Boards 1/16th Plate Ambrotype Handsome Young Man Fine Straw Hat Great DetailsCivil War Massachusetts Ambro Warren Gilson In Union Case1/6 Plate Ambrotype Very Clear Portrait Beautiful Lady Fancy Jewelry Clothes1/9 Plate Ambrotype Girl In Mourning Holding Framed Photo Of Relative RareNice 4 Pc. Lot - Cased Ambrotype Photos - NrBasket Of Fruits And Vegetables Union Case With Quarter Plate Ruby AmbrotypeFree Design There Is A Song Ambrotype 1016/1174 Rare Lp Near Mint- (cover=vg+) Post Civil War Era 6th Plate Ambrotype "gutapurcha Case" Older Gentleman! Antique Quarter Plate Ambrotype Or Tintype 7 Women W Wooden Loom Yarn ShuttlesCivil War Soldier ? Brass Button Coat Ambrotype ? 2x3" Photo1/4 Plate Ambrotype 3 Handsome Men Portrait C, 1850s In Unusual CaseOctagon Ambrotype Thermoplastic Case With Photograph Antique No Reserve1/6 Plate Ambrotype Lovely Young Couple Fancy Clothing In Case1/9 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Man W/gigantic Beard Stern Gaze Eyes NiceL@@k Wv Antique Pre-civil War Cased Daguerreotype Ambrotype Mixed Lot Of (5)Milk Glass Ambrotype Opaltype Young Woman Photograph1/6 Plate Ambrotype Pretty Lady & Daughter In Case6th Plate Double Ambrotype Or Tintype Of Boy & Girl ... Union Case2 Couples Women May Be Twins Horizontal Quarter Plate Ambrotype Paisley DressVintage Tintype Some With Copper Frames 1 Ambrotype. Lot #2Antique Pre-civil War Cased Daguerreotype Ambrotype Mixed Photo Lot Of 71/16th Plate Ambrotype In Case Tiny Little Girl Off Shoulder Dress UnusualAmbrotype Photo Beautiful Young Woman Civil War EraAntique Pre-civil War Cased Daguerreotype Mixed Photo LotCollection Of Ambrotype PhotographsAmbrotype Leather Bound PhotographAntique Photograph W/ 34 Star American Flag Union Case Civil War Image Ca. 1862Ex 1/4 Plate Ambrotype, New York Militia General, Son Of Boston Tea Party Member1/6 Plate Ambrotype Young Man W/beard Open Expression Bearded Nice EyesAmbrotype Of A Black Or Mulatto Woman Ph Rupp New YorkNice 1860s Cased Ambrotype Of A Man With A Tall Top Hat 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Gentleman W/beard Direct Gaze Nice Look In Case1/6 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Man Fancy Vest Unusual Hair 1850sPair Of 6th Plate Ambrotypes Seated Man & Woman In 1/2 Cases Wood Leather Union Case Ambro Woman PhotoAntique Ambrotype Daguerreotype 1800s PairCute Little Kid Vignette Curls Hair Tinted Red Bow Hat Fashion Sixth Plate Ambro1/6 Plate Ambrotype Pretty Older Lady Fancy Dress Unusual Mat Very Clear Image1/6 Plate Ambrotype Beautiful Young Lady Nice Portrait Fancy Hair Jewelry Etc1/6 Plate Ambrotype Pretty Teen Girl Fancy Dress Jewelry Cross EtcPost Civil War Era 6th Plate Ambrotype Older Lady Wearing A Brooch ! Matte For Union Case 2-3/8" By 2"Antique 6th Plate Ambrotype Cased Photograph Image Dad Son Man Baby Hat Portrait1920s Watson Stabilators Store Orig 4x5 Photo Negative Car Parts Pottsville PaMan With Fancy Cravat, Cumberbund, Gold Watch Chain And Cane