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    

Id'd Cased Ambrotype Uniformed Cs Soldier 21st Georgia InfantrySixth Plate Tintype Post Mortem Baby With Mom~very Nice Clean Photo~sad PhotoRare Ambrotype Of Boy With Jubilee Box Says B. Brasserie NySuperb Smiling Mother & Daughter Ambrotype & Lots Of Vintage Gold JewelryAmbrotype Of Unusual Man Tinted Green Tie Wild Hair And White BackdropSixth Plate Tintype Post Mortem Baby With Mom~very Nice Clean Photo~sad Photo4 -1/9th Plate Antique Ambrotype Photograph Images. One Back Of HeadVintage Identified Gentleman Sixth Plate Ambrotype And Hard Case. Fine Shape. NrAntique Ambrotype Circa 1850's Distiguished Gentleman Ninth Plate Union Case Man & Woman Ambrotype In Abalone Leather Book CaseVintage Gutta Percha Thermoplastic Civil War Era Photo Case W Nodding ThistlesRare British Early 1860's Ambrotype Girl Boy Antique German China Doll TintypeRare Ambrotype Photograph Of Seven College Professors No Reserve Original1860’s 3 Cased Ambrotype Images - Id’d Soldier (?) In Military Mat, Woman, ChildVintage Maker Marked: Tinted Ambrotype Of Young Lady By V.w. Goodwin Of NhAntique Daguerreotype Or Ambrotype Of A Man Case Quarter Plate Size L@@kLot Of Eleven 1/9th Plate Ambrotypes Beautifiul Lady Ambrotype Sixth Plate 1860's Has Been Professionally ConservedDaguerreotype/ambrotype 1/9 Photo Of Mature Lady With Ear Rings .Victorian Gilt Metal Insert For Large Ambrotype/ Daguerreotype/ Cdv/ Glass PhotoAmbrotype Photo~woman In Bonnet & Coat~ Very NiceAntique Ambrotype Photo Of A Young Girl1/6 Plate Ambrotype: Lady In Full Leather Case Ls/ NrYoung Man Light Straw Hat Tintype In Union Now & Forever Ambrotype Frame 1860sYoung Girl With Rosy Cheeks Ambrotype In Gutta Percha Union Case DetailedAntique Ambrotype Photo Of Woman & Child In CaseAntique Small Ambrotype Photo Of Woman In CaseAntique Daguerrotype Photo Case Gold Frame No Photo1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case Church Window Nice Condition-Lot Of 12 "antique Portraits"Rare 1/9 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case Brown Octagonal 2-102 Two BirdsUnusual 1/9 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case W/tintype Baby In Chair Nice1/6 Plate Daguerreotype Ambrotype Case Bobby Shafto Sailing 1-65 Berg