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]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Double Armed Confederate Ambrotype Ninth PlateTwo Ambrotype Photo Union Civil War Soldier Armed Pistol Sword Post Mortem Dead1860's Civil War Soldier Cased Ambrotype Photo In Light Uniform Triple ArmedBeautiful African American Black Girl From Brady, Texas Ruby Glass Ambrotype1861 Civil War Young Soldier Ambrotype Photo Photograph Riffle Gold Hand TintingRare Civil War 1864 Ambrotype Of General George Mcclellan In Gutta Percha Case1850s Ninth Plate Daguerreotype Size Gutta Percha Case "going To Market" W/ Dog1850s Ninth Plate Daguerreotype Size Gutta Percha Case "geometric" Berg 3-33119th Century Ambrotype Photographic Image Boy With Dog In Tooled Leather Case 1/4 Plate Ambrotype Of Family Posed In Front Of Unique Artistic River BackdropSixth Plate 6th Civil War Ambrotype Infantry Union Soldier Full Uniform1850s Ninth Plate Daguerreotype Size Gutta Percha Case "beehive, Farm Motif"Antique Civil War Archive Pv Sears Co. E 21st Ny Vol Cavalry Incl Ambrotype AafaAmbrotype Of Joshua Chamberlain 20th Maine Civil War Gettysburg Veteran Antique 1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of Beautiful Woman In Thermoplasic Wall Frame1850s Sixth Plate Daguerreotype Size Gutta Percha Case "raising The Brood"Victorian Post-mortem Ambrotype Photo Dead Little Girl W/ Father Hand Tinted1/6 Plate Very Clean Ambrotype Photo Of Girl In Complete Leather Case - AntiqueCivil War Ambrotype Unidentified Confederate Lieutenant Colonel Full Length Civil War Union Soldier 1/6th Plate Ruby Ambrotype In Period Case1/6 Plate Ambrotype Fantastic Portrait Backdrop Brothers Purple Glass 1850s5 Civil War Era Daguerreotypes & AmbrotypesGenuine Union Case By S.peck & Ambrotype Hand Tinted Photo Of Victorian Lady.Antique Daguerreotype Ambrotype Large Thermoplastic Union Case Photo Toys Cat Antique Victorian Ambrotype Positive Photograph On Glass X 2 Circa 18601/4 Plate Ambrotype Mother Two Daughters Off Shoulder Dress Fancy Jewelry 1850sCirca 1860's Civil War Era 1/6th Plate Ruby Ambrotype Of A Id'd Young FarmerLot Of Four Cased AmbrotypesOccupational 9th Plate Ambrotype--full-standing View Of Man Wearing Overalls1850's Pre Mortem Ambrotype Cased Photograph Of Very Ill Middle Aged Man18 Daguerrotype/ambrotype/tin Photo/cabinet Photos/paper Lot Dustin FamilyAmbrotype - Cw Soldier In Sack Coat With Id - Jesse Bates, MassachusettsAmbrotype In A Gutta Percha Frame1/9 Plate Ruby Ambrotype Pretty Sad Girl Off Shoulder Dress Lace Tight HairC1850s Tinted Ambrotype Portrait Of A Little Girl With Case -nice! Clear! Crisp!Civil War Ruby Ambrotype Of Union Soldier In Greatcoat Antique Tintype Photograph Of A Man Dated And Inscribed From 1860Antique Ambrotype Mother Of Pearl Case 1/6th Plate Of Man W/ CaneLady On Milk Glass - Opalotype Antique 1/9th Plate Ambrotype Photograph Of A Young Woman - Complete Case1/4 Plate Ambrotype Photo Of Girl - Cutting & Bowdoin Photographers Boston, MaCharming 1/4 Plate Hand Tinted Ambrotype Mother & Daughter Ringlets Strut Frame 1/4 Plate Ambrotype Photo Of A Man In A Thermoplastic Cast W/ Damage1/9 Plate Ruby Ambrotype Handsome Thoughtful Young Man W/big Hat JacketAn Antique Ambrotype In Original Folding Case1/9 Plate Ambrotype Ruddy Faced Young Teen Girl Pink Tint Unusual Top1/9 Plate Ambrotype Pretty Teen Girl Vignette Portrait Bonnet Pink Tint 1850s7 9th Plate Ambrotypes Lady Profile Cute Girl Man Woman Young Men 3/4 Side ViewAntique Estate Tinted Ambrotype 4 Trunk Book Cased Photographs FamilyAntique Ambrotype PhotoAntique Cased 1/9th Plate Ambrotype Photograph Of A Baby W/ Patriotic Flag CoverRare Antique 1800's Ambrotype Photograph In Gutta Percha Case Beautiful 1/9 Plate Ruby Ambrotype Cute Shubby Teen Girl W/necklace1/6 Plate Purple Ambrotype Folky Handsome Husband And Wife Tinted Red Big Tie1/9 Plate Ambrotype Off Shoulder Dress Jewelry Pretty Girl Portrait 1850s2 1/9 Plate Photos - Tintype Of Frowning Little Boy Ambrotype Of Bearded Man1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of Mother Holding ChildAmelia Earhart & Plane Amateur Snap Shot Photos & Roosevelt 1930-40 Annotated1/9 Plate Ambrotype Handsome Dashing Man W/big Hair Beard Pink TintPost Mortem Child Ambrotype Photograph