Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Photography in the Victorian Era

by | January 8, 2010 | 12 comments

There’s a scene in Coming Home, my upcoming historical romance release from Highland Press, in which my hero is staring at a photograph of his former girlfriend. It’s something that seems so simple today, but this story takes place in 1867. What kind of photograph would he have had?

So I took a deep breath, and dove into my research.

One of the most important inventions of the nineteenth century was the development of photography. At the same time that men began to march off to war and wanted to leave their wives, mothers and sweethearts a memento, one photographic process replaced another and became cheaper, easier to produce, safer, and more durable.

Three photographic processes were especially popular at the same time: Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. These were one of a kind images which were almost always reversed left to right.

The Daguerreotype:

Period of Use: 1839 – ca. 1860

The earliest practical photographic process was the daguerreotype. Particularly suited for portraiture, the images created were so lifelike that some referred to the process as a “mirror with a memory.”

A daguerreotype was made by exposing an image on a sensitized silver-plated sheet of copper. As a result, the surface of a daguerreotype was extremely reflective. No negative was used in the daguerreotype process. The image is almost always reversed left to right. A photographer might have used a mirror inside the camera to correct this.

The Ambrotype:

Period of Use: 1851 – 1880s

The ambrotype was also known as the “glass Daguerrotype.” It was a variation of the wet plate process, and was less costly than the daguerreotype. An ambrotype was made by slightly underexposing a glass wet plate in the camera. The finished plate produced a negative image that appeared positive when backed with velvet, paper, metal or varnish, making it the 19th century equivalent of the “instant photograph.”

Because of the fragility of the material, both the ambrotype and daguerreotype were usually enclosed in a glass case.

The Tintype:

Period of use: 1858 – 1910s.

Also called Ferrotype or Malainotype, tintypes were another variation of the wet plate process. Photographers painted an emulsion onto a varnished iron plate, which was then exposed in the camera. The low cost and durability of tintypes, coupled with the growing number of traveling photographers, enhanced the tintype’s popularity

Tintypes came in a variety of sizes, were cheaper and sturdier than earlier processes, and could be mailed. Because of this, the tintype was extremely popular during the Civil War.


  1. Pat McDermott

    Nice reminder of how easy we have it with our digital cameras today, Cynthia. What an interesting history lesson!

  2. Cynthia Owens

    Thanks, Pat, glad you enjoyed it. When I think of the approximately 500 photos I took in England and Ireland this summer, believe me, I realize how easy we have it! This is also one of the best things about writing historical romance – the research!

  3. Molly

    I love old photos. I was startled to find color photos taken in Imperial Russia at the turn of the last century. I had no idea the technology existed. I think I stared at the photo for quite a while! Heck, I thought the world existed in black and white until sometime in the '30's when, like Dorothy landing in Oz, we suddenly went to color!

  4. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Molly, thanks for stopping by. Yes, old photos are wonderful, aren't they? I love going through my parents' old photos of when she was a girl, and seeing them and all my aunts and uncles when they were young. It's almost like reading a biography.

  5. Susan Macatee

    Great post, Cynthia! My husband and I had one of these done while at a Civil War reenactment in our reenactor garb. I'm not sure which one it was, but the photo was instant and in a glass case. It's really funny to see ourselves in this old-timey looking photo. LOL.

  6. Keena Kincaid

    Interesting post, Cynthia. I'd never thought about the early days of photography–and I even have the old glass plate negatives from my great-grandmother's childhood. Thanks for the history lesson.

  7. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Susan, I love those "old time" pictures. We had one done when we were in Ireland over the summer, where we dressed up as the "gentry," and everyone tells me my husband and son look exactly like the real "lords of the manor" might have 100 years ago!

  8. Cynthia Owens

    Hi Keena, glad you enjoyed the post. As a history buff, I love looking through old photos as well as listening to the stories that go with them.

  9. Tanya Hanson

    Oh, the digital cameras are so miraculous, aren't they? But I love looking at the antique pix I found a stash of in my mom's old house.

    I have a tintype of my great-grandpa framed in the guestroom. He actually was a hottie.

    Thanks for the great blog post, Cynthia. Keep 'em coming.


  10. Cynthia Owens

    Thanks for stopping by, Tanya, glad you enjoyed the post!

  11. librarypat

    Thanks for the interesting post. I had heard the names before, but thought they were interchangeable. I'll now have to try to figure out which type my pictures are.

  12. Cynthia Owens

    That's the same problem I had when I wrote my oriringal passage, librarypat! But isn't research fun?



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