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    

Huge Lot Ambrotype Daguerrotype Cdvs Union Case Civil War General Lincoln Rare New England Mill Factory Waterfall River Dam Bridge Brick Chimney Ambrotype1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of Armed Civil War Soldier W/gear In Gutta Percha Case2 Antique Daguerreotypes With Tintype Of Gold Miners,& Ambrotype Of Small Girl Very Nice Ambrotype Of A Uniformed Musician With His Horn Very Nice Crisp Clear Ambrotype Of Classic Armed Young Union Soldier#2: Rare Indian 1/16th Plate Union Thermoplastic Daguerreotype Ambrotype CaseAntique Civil War Era Daguerreotype Ambrotype Mourning Photo Locket PendantCa. 1860's Civil War Early 6th Plate Ruby Ambrotype Union SoldierStore / Post Office - 1/4 Plate Ambrotype & Full CaseRare 1865 British Army Album - Burma / India / Penang / Rangoon Etc.- Large PicsLot Of 22 Tintype Ambrotype And Daguerrotype PhotosCa 1850's Ruby Ambrotype "man Smoking A Cigar" In Very Rare Tortoise Shell CaseConfederate Image Ambrotype Mississippi Ided Very Nice Ambrotype Of Union Zouave Of The 62nd Nyv Anderson ZouavesLot 2 Early Cased Daguerreotype Ambrotype Tintype Child Children Kid Baby Photo1/6th Plate Double Ambrotype In Octagonal Gutta Percha Case1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of Gentleman In Gutta Percha CaseL P & Co. Gutta Percha Union Case W/ Ambrotype, Scroll Design, 1/6 Plate, C.1860Civil War Soldier AmbrotypeDaguerreotype / Ambrotype C1850's Ogee FrameAmbrotype Or Daguerreotype Of Young Boy In "union Case" Type Locket Civil War Soldier AmbrotypeOccupational 1/6th Plate Ambrotype Of Cobber With A Hammer And ShoeUnion Case/thermoplastic Case Civil War Era, Ambrotype Of Young Woman1/9 Clear Ambrotype Of A Probable Confederate In A Battle Shirt With HaversackDouble 1/4 Plate Ambrotype & Full CaseAntique Ambrotype Photo Portrait Of Lady In Black ~ Mourning ?4 Antique Photos Lot Man Woman Tintype Ambrotype Daguerreotype Gutta Percha CaseAntique Ambrotype Of Family In Original Leather Case, 1850'sCivil War Soldier Ruby AmbrotypeCa 1860's Civil War Half Ruby Plate Ambrotype Union Soldier Civil War Soldier AmbrotypeDelightful Little British Girl With China Doll AmbrotypeBeautiful Cond. Rare Pre-civil War Era Gutta-percha Case With Ambrotypes 1859Antique Ambrotype Photo Portrait Of Pretty Bonnetted LadyFamous French Actress Elisabeth Felix - Aka Mademoiselle Rachel C1840s AmbrotypeLot Of 7 Antique Daguerreotype Ambrotype Tintype Case 1850s Photo Family W/id1/2 Plate Mid 19th Cent Ambroytpe Photo/handsome Family Portrait With Cute GirlCivil War Soldier Ruby Ambrotype Of A CorporalCivil War Soldier AmbrotypeLady & Gentleman Pair Of Antique Gilt Framed Ambrotype PhotographsNice Sixth Plate Ambrotype And Another Case With 3 Locks Of Hair Sowed InAntique Ambrotype Victorian 1880's In Orange Velvet Frame With Hanging RingAntique Union Case With Civil War American Flags With Young Man AmbrotypeHalf Plate Ambrotype Young Couple Mop Floral CaseDouble Patriotic Gutta Percha Cased Civil War Tintype And AmbrotypeAntique Sixth Plate Ambrotype Photograph Woman In Gingham Dress Hand TintedCivil War Era Ambrotype Major E. Stevens 12th Va. 1864 1/9 Plate Gold Foil CasedCivil War Soldier AmbrotypeLovely Half Plate Tinted Ambrotype Portrait C1850 Gentleman Seated, (1)Early Victorian Ambrotype Photograph In Case Of A Young GirlLovely Half Plate Tinted Ambrotype Portrait C1850 Gentleman Seated, (2)Antique 1/6 Plate Ambrotype Of Little Girl In Ornate Case. Hand Tinted CheeksQuarter Plate Ambrotype Of A Stern ManSixth Plate Ruby Ambro The Lady In The White Dress Gold Jewelry Ghost Like LookAntique Double 1/4 Plate Ruby Ambrotype Photo Pair In Lady & Falcon CaseCivil War Soldier Ruby AmbrotypeOriginal Ambrotype Photograph In Case Man Woman Portrait Hand TintedStriking Horse And Rider Ambrotype From 1850's