“Look! Look!! Look!!! Tintypes. Cheap. Beautiful. Lasting.” The sign posted by the entrance to an elaborate temporary booth at a 1903 county fair sums up in a handful of words much of the appeal of the simple tintype portrait photograph.From the latter half of the 19th century until nearly the middle of the 20th, one of the easiest ways for the average American to obtain a portrait photograph was by approaching a booth such as the one above or giving their pennies to an itinerant or street photographer. The process, from posing for the camera to a finished portrait in hand, such as the one at right, required only a matter of minutes. And it was indeed, cheap, costing only a few cents for a likeness of oneself – or perhaps a child or sweetheart.
For decades, the tintype was the most likely result of such a transaction, as it could be created with minimal equipment on any busy street corner. The metal base (iron, not tin, despite the name) for the photo was far more durable than paper and so it offered a lasting photographic record.
As seen in the examples below, photographers set up on bustling streets to catch passersby, at county or state fairs or anywhere a crowd was gathering. Some had mobile studios, though few as elaborate as the one above. Not all itinerant photographers made tintypes. As time and technology marched forward, small photographs on paper were also available for sale. The practice of the itinerant photographer faded away in the 1940s, as more and more people owned their own cameras.
- The photographers who made their living by setting up their cameras in varying locations were known by many names, and so our photo captions vary as well. Explore more photos of: street photographers, itinerant photographers and traveling photographers in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog. Photographers who focused on producing tintypes were, of course, also known as tintype photographers.
- Explore hundreds of examples of tintypes in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. While many of these were shot in traditional studios, some were certainly shot on the street or in traveling studios equipped with a few props.
- Learn more about tintypes in our overview of Popular Photographic Print Processes Represented in the Prints and Photographs Division.