By Kay

I have been going through some old photographs which are part of a donation. What treasures I've found! I am going to talk about three of those treasures in this article. At first I didn't notice anything different about these photographs and the tintypes surrounding them. Then I picked one of them up and looked at it closely. It was an ambrotype! I was very excited! I became even more excited when I spotted two more. Not only was I looking at three ambrotypes, they were all in pretty good shape. “Wait a minute! Wait a minute!” you shout. “What’s an ambrotype?” Glad you asked. Without going into copious amounts of detail, here are the basics. An ambrotype is a wet collodion negative on glass. Different photographers used different techniques when creating these. Remember the days before digital cameras? There used to be things called negatives. We used to take those negatives to photo shops and those photo shops would develop those negatives, put them on paper and give them back to us.  Well, that’s not an ambrotype. However, think of that negative if it was on a piece of treated glass. Ambrotypes were not transferred to paper; inventors hadn’t quite reached that plateau. What usually happened was that a dark lacquer/varnish was but on the back. This allowed the negative-looking image to appear as a positive. Most ambrotypes are reversed laterally; which means they are like your reflection in the mirror - reversed. But not all. Sometimes the ambrotype was painted on the other side. Some were varnished on the face and some were sandwiched between glasses. When looking at an ambrotype you need to examine carefully to see which side has the emulsion. Ambrotypes became pretty popular for a short time. They were a cheaper than a daguerreotype, but as you might guess, they were extremely fragile.
OldestGirl

sickgirl
boy
On to my three ambrotypes and my attempt to establish a time period for them. But before I continue my adventure, a word of warning. Treat an ambrotype as an artifact – all of it. This artifact includes not only the glass image, but the mat, preserver (foil strip), and the case it is in. A careful examination should be done. Measurements, description and the condition it’s in should all be compiled. In this case all the images were scanned, front and back, then put away - more on that later. All further examination of these three images was done by using my TIFF scans, not the fragile artifacts.

Problems right away. There wasn’t anything on any of my ambrotypes which indicated who these people were. I could not find any photographer information. There was nothing, except the ambrotypes. So I have named them Unidentified Teenage Girl, Unidentified Young Girl, Unidentified Young Boy.  I know, I know, I’m going out on a limb.
girlChair
I immediately jumped to the conclusion that these people were related. I don’t know why I did because the only provable connection between them was that the ambrotypes were in the same box together. But when I did some comparison of the three, I did find some slight connections.  The mat on two of them is the same and very similar to the mat on the Unidentified Teenage Girl. The foil strips are all slightly different. I also noticed the chair in each one. I believe that is the same chair in each one of the photographs, even though it is shot at different angles. So, what does that mean? What that means to me is that these three young people were maybe related, knew each other or used the same photographer. I will be honest, when I look at their faces I don't see any resemblance between them. My guess is that they are probably related, but I cannot prove it.

The adventure continues – trying to establish a date. Remember when trying to date photographs, everything has to be taken into consideration.

I started with the history of the ambrotype technique. In 1850, Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet plate collodion process. He did not take out a patent on it. Then in 1854 James Ambrose Cutting submitted the first official patent. Needless to say there were numerous photographers who were a tad bit upset with Mr. Cutting; seeing as how he didn’t actually “invent” the process. In the United States, the ambrotype lasted from about 1850 to 1870; it lasted longer in Europe. Could these images be from 1850 or 1854? Let's do a little deeper searching. Oh boy – more adventure!
BackNegative

While scanning the images, I noticed the backs didn’t look as if they were lacquered. So, I did an experiment. I happen to have access to a flatbed scanner which can scan slides and negatives. I scanned the back using the negative setting. I was very pleased with the results, and, on top of a nice negative, another path opened for me. All three of the images had a lovely "ruby" color to them. More digging. I found a really big article on glass (which gave me a headache), but in that article I found that beginning around 1858 some photographers started to use colored glass for their ambrotypes, the most prevalent being “ruby-colored.” My ambrotypes are definitely "ruby-colored" glass. You see what just happened? I have another date to work with. 1858.

But the ambrotypes holds more clues. These particular ambrotypes were not in a case, but the mat and strip of foil were still intact. Guess what – even this part of ambrotypes have a history. Early ambrotypes had pretty plain mats and foil strips. The foil strips of the early ambrotypes did not have reinforced corners. Around 1859, the designs became more intricate and the corners reinforced. All of my images have pretty elaborate designs on both the mat and foil strip. So, let's move the date up to 1859. Now, let's look at the people in the photographs.

Dating photographs based on what a person is wearing is always tricky. There are so many variables involved. Are the people in the photo able to keep up with the latest fashion? Are they wearing hand-me-downs? Are they expressing themselves by going rogue? This is why exact dating of an object isn’t always possible, unless there’s a date written across it. Even with a date on it, one should tread cautiously. That is why the whole artifact has to be taken into consideration when trying to put a date on it. Let’s look at our individuals. (INSERT sick girl arrows, boy arrows)
sickgirlarrows

BoyArrows
Both of the girls are wearing off-the-shoulder dresses. This trend lasted on and off throughout history; it was in use between 1840s-1870s. In all probability, these dresses had drawstrings in the back which allowed for easier dressing - especially with the youngest girl. They are both wearing bell-like sleeves and the eldest girl has a fitted bodice. Looking through Godey’s, I found similar clothing dating from 1858-1864. The girls have their hair parted down the middle, but neither have sausage curls. Also, the youngest one’s hair is short. This could indicate any number of things. She may have been a feminist, or maybe she supported the Confederate cause. But, I think she was probably ill. Women cut their hair when they became ill. The hair was easier to take care of and it was believed that cutting it helped reduce a fever. If you look closely at the younger girl it appears that she may have lost some weight. Her arms look almost skeletal and the dress she is wearing appears to be too big for her. If you look closer at the bodice of her dress, it is tapered. Now to the young boy – yes, that boy has a dress on. It was normal for young boys to wear dresses until they were either 4 or 5 years old. How do I know this is a boy and not a girl? A couple of things. Buttons. Around the 1860s boys wore little jackets with buttons on the front. Notice that there are also buttons running along the bottom of the jacket. These buttons were attached to the skirt. Parting of the hair. The other hint which leads me to think this is a boy is that his hair is parted on the side. Usually, girls parted their hair down the middle while boys wore their hair parted on the side.  All the skirts in the photographs appear to be full. All three of them are dressed in some kind of plaid, gingham or checkered material. Plaids were in vogue after Prince Albert and Queen Victoria went mad for all things Scottish around 1856. 1856 also saw the introduction of the "Buffalo check" shirt from Woolrich (which is red and black). Plaids and checks were in vogue.

These images may have been taken together or separately or there may be no connection at all. I fancy that the Unidentified Teenage Girl may have been taken on a separate occasion, then the other two followed. Why? Just because her mat is a little bit different than the other two. My guess for a time period for all three images (it truly is a guess) would be between 1859 and 1863.

Storing ambrotypes. Ambrotypes are very fragile. When you store them they should be separated from all the other photographs you have. There are heavy-duty archival paper boards called four-flap paper which can be used, but the ambrotype must not be able to move inside that paper. What I have done here is what we do for glass negatives. I cut heavy-duty archival card stock the same size as the photos and tied them with archival linen string. The knot of the string is on the bottom edge, not the middle of the photos. I also wrote all the pertinent information about the ambrotype on an archival paper sleeve and placed the wrapped images inside the sleeves. They were then put in a box and are being stored in a room where the temperature does not fluctuate. At no time should bubble-wrap touch these. Bubble-wrap is for entertainment, not ambrotypes.
Wrapped Ambrotype
closeupGirl

Cleaning. While I was studying my scanned images, I did a lot of zooming in and out. There are two pieces of glass, one with the image on it and one covering the image. On close inspection one can see a lot of what appears to be particles of "stuff." This "stuff" could be anything - gold-leaf, dust, white crystals caused by bad storage. The only way to remove that stuff from the ambrotype itself is to take it apart. We will not be doing that. Why? Because we are not qualified. If one really wants to clean any kind of old photograph, they should contact a conservator/archivist. Do not take any of these treasures to your local Walgreens.

And, that was my adventure with ambrotypes – who knows what else is in those mysterious treasure boxes.
 
I have enclosed a list of conservators who may be able to help or give advice:
Indiana Historical Society
450 West Ohio Street, Indianapolis, Indiana, 46202 • (317) 232-1882
Ramona Duncan-Huse is senior director of Conservation
Stephanie Gowler, Conservator, Book & Photograph 

Northeast Document Conservation Center
100 Brickstone Square
Andover, MA 01810
Phone: 978-470-1010
Fax: 978-475-6021
Email: info@nedcc.org

ICA Art Conservation
2915 Detroit Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44113
p 216.658.8700

Sources I used for my adventure:
Websites:
Phototree
Maureen Taylor
Getty
Library of Congress
Godey’s fashion plates
Photographs, Archival Care and Management by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler and Diane Vogt-O’Connor