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1860s American 'Multiplying' Wet Plate Camera

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Wood Cameras220 of 247Old box camera5X7 film Camera from Indiana
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Posted 6 years ago


(269 items)

Today, we take for granted the ability to make lots of pictures, and copies of pictures at practically no cost. This wasn’t the case back in the mid-1800s when making tintypes because each image was unique - there was no negative!

A solution in lowering the cost of making pictures was to shoot many images on a single plate; which required specialized photographic equipment called ‘multiplying cameras' by collectors.

Shown here is a mid-1860s collodion ('wet' photography process) camera with a set of 9 portrait lenses mounted. Small pictures produced by this type of camera were referred to as ‘gem’ images. Although a 9-lens outfit is rare, 16-lens and 36-lens cameras are also known.

Strangely, picture taking with multiple lenses was quite difficult because each lens had to be carefully mounted to have the exact same focal point as all the others. This also meant that each lens had to be optically identical to the others; which posed a challenge for lens makers because they had to spend a lot of time going through their inventory to pair up lenses.

From a collecting point of view, it took me nearly 8 years to find a lens set that matched the camera body. Ironically, the lenses were an eBay auction win (something that I haven't seen since).


  1. Dick Bolt, 6 years ago
    I have several of these large CDV type cameras. Wet plate tanks also go with these cameras. There usually was a stereo lens board & back for it also. They have been much copied for CW rein-actors posing as a CW period photographer. I think the image above has the lenses backwards unless it is used as a copy camera?
  2. rniederman rniederman, 6 years ago
    Hi Dick; Thanks for the comment. The mount and lens positioning is correct. The wooden mount has Scovill Mfg. markings and matches early catalogue listings. For example, this is the same type of configuration as found on early Anthony / Loehr cameras. Gem lenses have short focal lengths because of the relatively small image size made on the larger plate. Then again, there is nothing preventing the camera from being used for copy work. Thx. - Rob
  3. rniederman rniederman, 4 years ago
    Thanks, Scott!
  4. rniederman rniederman, 4 years ago
    Thanks mtg75 and AntigueToys!
  5. rniederman rniederman, 3 years ago
    Thanks aghcollect, farmlady, and Sean (from a while back)!

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