Tin Type: The 19th Century Business You Can Start Today

The old business of tin-typing, making genuine old-fashioned tin-type photographs using cameras, processes and plates, is still economically viable today.
By Daniel Ogden
March/April 1975
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Led by his interest in the subject, Elbinger studied early photography at the Smithsonian Institution and spent long hours in the darkroom attempting to translate old emulsion and developer formulas into modern chemistry.
MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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Alternatives are where you find them ... on a Maine homestead, on a tugboat in the Caribbean, in a craft shop or home office. Doug Elbinger found his in the 19th century, with the help of a time machine he discovered sitting in a museum: an original Anthony camera, made circa 1860 to take tintypes.

Today, Elbinger is a tintypist ... a maker of genuine old-time tin type photographs using cameras, processes, and plates developed in the 1880's. At his studio in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, you can dress in authentic 19th-century costume, pose in front of the big wooden camera, look into the lens for 10 seconds and have your image recorded on a metal plate. Five minutes later your tin type photograph has been developed ... and you see yourself as you might have looked 100 years ago.

Before he found his calling in the past, Doug was a freelance photographer who worked his way through college with a modern day camera and later traveled the world for the major news agencies. Many such professionals take an interest in the history of their art, and Elbinger was no exception. Less typically, however, Doug didn't just collect early cameras and photos ... he actually preferred to spend his spare time taking pictures with antique equipment!.

Led by his interest in the subject, Elbinger studied early photography at the Smithsonian Institution and spent long hours in the darkroom attempting to translate old emulsion and developer formulas into modern chemistry. In 1972, after many failures, Doug made his first successful tintype. He was then firmly on his way to reviving what had once been America's most popular form of photography.

That's right, "most popular". Over a hundred years ago — before George Eastman came along with the little black box he perversely called "the Brownie" — photography was a wide-open field ... and the customer had a good many options as to how his image would be taken. The choices included daguerreotypes (silver and copper plates), ambrotypes (glass), photos on waxed paper or wet collodion, and many more. Most of the methods used were invented in Europe, and all of them were expensive.  

Predictably, our own country's contribution to the art increased the speed of development, lowered the price dramatically, and allowed everyone to indulge in the luxury of having his portrait made. The tintype — a uniquely American institution — brought photography to the people for the first time.  

The earliest tintypes were made by a wet-plate process that is still used by some modern practitioners. One notable reviver of the method is located at Detroit's Greenfield Village ... a re-creation of 19th-century life and technology complete with working tintype studio. The photo operation is successful, but only because its management called in the Ford Motor Company's chemical division to help with technical problems ... which are considerable.  

The trouble with the wet-plate process is that the formulas of the last century can't easily be converted into modern chemical terms. Some of the ingredients are no longer manufactured at all, and others — potassium cyanide, for instance — are so deadly that the tintypist risks his life every time he takes a picture by the original recipe. (No kidding. Daniel Ogden knows of one death and another near-death from this cause. The Greenfield Village facility includes an elaborate ventilation system to remove the toxic fumes. You have been warned. — MOTHER.)  

For other reasons, too, the wet-plate process is a challenge even to the professional photographer. Such a tintype is a totally handmade product. You take a thin sheet of steel, coat it with collodion you've mixed yourself, carefully sensitize the plate with silver nitrate, expose it to the camera, develop it with ferrous sulfate, and fix it with hypo. If everything goes well, you have a 50–50 chance of a clear picture. And if you think it all sounds pretty complicated, Elbinger — who made his first tintypes by exactly this method — agrees wholeheartedly.  

After a few months of struggling with wet plates, Doug decided to update the process ... from 1860 to 1880, that is. The "modern" tintype of 1880 utilized a dry plate precoated at the factory with photo-sensitive emulsions. This improved version required no preparation or dangerous and complicated chemical mixtures, and could be developed in about five minutes. Obviously, the dry plate was the way to go ... especially if the tintypist's art was to be available to anyone other than professional photographers and chemistry majors.  

For many months thereafter, Elbinger worked with photochemists in an effort to perfect a reliable dry-plate tintype. He ordered steel, gelatin, and silver, coated his own plates ... and found that they didn't work. They, and many successors, continued not to work for almost a year. It wasn't until the summer of 1974 that the original process was duplicated. The results, however, were worth the trouble: Doug's modern dry-plate tintypes resemble those of the 1880's in tone, texture, contrast, and every other way.  

The camera in which the plates are exposed is just as authentic as the tintypes themselves. Elbinger borrowed an original from a museum, took it to a cabinetmaker, and had it reproduced right down to the teak and rosewood plate holder. Equipment like that, of course, begs to be used ... and Doug soon found himself reviving the old occupation of traveling portrait maker.  

At first the newly launched tintypist worked out of a van and hit antique shows, arts and crafts fairs, re-enactments of battles, and other special events. Elbinger and a friend would set up their darktent, display a few sample tintypes ... and watch the line form. It wasn't uncommon to gross $1,000 a weekend from the sale of pictures at $10.00 a plate. (Once the partners raised the price to $12.00 just to see what would happen. You guessed it: The line grew longer still.)  

Doug, however, had dreams of an actual studio ... a re–creation of those formerly found in every American community. The location he picked for the first such studio — Harpers Ferry — is ideal, an antique in itself. Students of history will remember John Brown's raid on the armory at that site in 1859, and the town's near destruction during the Civil War because of its strategic importance as an arms depot and rail center. There could hardly be a more suitable place to practice a craft of the period ... especially the making of tintypes, which were enormously popular in wartime as keepsakes for soldiers and their loved ones.  

A unique product in an appropriate setting is hard to beat ... and the Harpers Ferry studio made a small profit in its first half season, with no publicity at all. With the help of some advertising and the reputation built during 1974, the venture is expected to gross well over $35,000 during the eight-month season in 1975. And a second location has now been opened in Franklin Village, Michigan.  

That should be the end of the story ... except that Elbinger isn't content to keep the fun and profit of a tintype business to himself. Doug figures that his newly perfected dry-plate process is so easy to master that almost anyone can learn to make old-time photos and use the skill as the basis for a good living: a low pressure, low-capital enterprise which can be started and operated without a lot of hassle over inventory (and without a rich uncle to absorb losses during the first two years). Elbinger, in short, is offering you the chance to learn and practice a lost art and make money at it.  

If you're interested, the Harpers Ferry tintypist can start you off easily with authentic cameras and plates at reasonable prices. He also has access to various pieces of equipment which you may or may not want. The following, however, are the basics:  

[1] The Camera. An original made to take 7 inch x 5 inch plates would be fine (if you could find one, that is and even if you could, any owner who knew the worth of such an item would probably ask a price that ran to five figures). Elbinger has been offered $1,000 for his reproduction. That, he agrees, is a lot of money for a wooden machine.  

Doug, however, is able to offer cameras similar to his own at $650. The price includes one standard lens and two plate-holding backs. A stand (likewise a period reproduction) is available for an extra $250.  

Elbinger also supplies a very useful accessory that enables you to make copies of pictures. The tintype, remember, isn't made from a negative and therefore can't be reproduced by printing. The original practitioners of the art got around this problem by fitting their cameras with four lenses. Each focused a small image on one quarter of the plate, which was later cut into four sections. Doug uses the same method and recommends the quarter-plate capability as an easy way to give the customer more for his money without increasing your per-picture costs. A set of extra lenses can be ordered for about $300.  

[2] The Plates. The other major expense for the novice tintypist is an initial order of dry plates. These are pieces of aluminum coated with a gelatin emulsion and packaged to prevent exposure to light. They have a shelf life of one year, and are guaranteed. The cost of $4.00 each includes a supply of developer sufficient to process the number of plates in the order.  

Other items are necessary but aren't automatically supplied ... because Elbinger isn't interested in offering you a big "package deal" full of things you may already have or be able to get elsewhere at lower prices. Such as:  

[1] Darkroom Equipment. The simplicity of the dry-plate process means that all the necessary developing apparatus should come to only about $50.00.  

First of all, you must have a lightproof room in which to develop the plates (a van, a tent, even a closet with a blanket over the door will work fine). This space needs a safelight, which can be a 30watt bulb covered with red cellophane. Add a couple of tanks to hold the developer and fixer, a rinsing system, and some print frames to hold the plates, and you're all set. Don't worry ... no expertise or split-second timing is needed to finish dry-plate tintypes.  

[2] Frames. It's good practice to mount your pictures before giving them to customers. The 19th-century tintypist preferred an oval border (for practical reasons, because it concealed the irregular edges of the image). Elbinger uses heavy paper frames of the same shape to give his products an authentic look, and he can help you locate and order a supply of 250 at a price of about $75.00. If you can do better elsewhere, or want to make your own, go ahead.  

[3] Lights. If you want to limit your photography to outdoor events, your list of "must" items is complete. Indoors, however, you need lighting ... and not a couple of 100-watt bulbs, either. Tintypes used to be called "sun pictures" because the process worked only in bright daylight. Today we can create the intensity and "light temperature" of the sun by artificial means ... at a modest price. A set of lights will cost about $50.00. (Even if your studio has a skylight like its 19th-century counterparts, such equipment still comes in handy on cloudy days.)  

That, basically, is all you need to become a full-fledged tintypist. Depending on what gear you've already accumulated, you could get started for around $2,500 ... and you can reasonably expect to make that much in two or three good weekends.  

What about know-how? If all the talk of fixers, safelights, and light temperatures has you a little worried, rest assured that you can learn everything there is to know about dry-plate tintypes in a couple of days. Elbinger has worked for over a year to get most of the bugs out of the operation ... and he'll train you to be a tintypist at either his place or yours (whichever is easier on your pocketbook).  

If you choose, Doug can send someone to your location — at your expense — to teach you the rudiments of the business. Or you can spend a weekend working at the Harpers Ferry establishment. Elbinger prefers the latter approach because it allows better instruction (and gives him a chance to get acquainted with others who want to make tintypes). Several "graduates" of the training program, incidentally, are already running their own studios-at Nashville, Indiana; Georgetown, a section of Washington D.C.; Alexandria, Virginia; and Scottsdale, Arizona — and a couple more former students are on the road with mobile operations.  

I should stress that these are independent concerns. After training, you're on your own to manage your new venture just the way you please ... and you'll have to make some decisions about what kind of studio you want. This business can be run on many different levels to allow for varying expectations concerning hours and profits. You could easily, for instance, spend over $10,000 to set up a superslick operation on the beach at Fort Lauderdale, including all the options: painted backdrops like those in the original studios ... Victorian furniture ... costumes of the period ... professional publicity ... and advertising. You could, but you don't have to. It's quite possible to do without most of the expensive extras, or to devise inexpensive alternatives.  

For example, instead of paying high rent for a prime location, just book yourself into special events. Usually you'll find yourself right on the main drag in a booth that costs you only a few dollars a day.  

When you do make such a reservation, offer the sponsors of the show your services in generating publicity for the affair. Art and antique fests, especially, are always looking for unusual angles to catch the eye of the public ... and tintypes surely qualify. The old craft makes a good story, and Elbinger has found that the media in small towns and big cities alike are happy to give him all the free coverage he can use.

Costumes are optional but desirable and, in Doug's experience, a real help to the business. They add to the period look of the pictures and seem to be especially interesting to the public. They're expensive bought new (half a dozen elegant outfits can run as much as $1,000) ... but if you know someone who's handy with a sewing machine, they can just as well be homemade. If necessary, Elbinger can put you on to sources of costumes or authentic patterns. Occasionally, too, a community theater will rent or sell part of its wardrobe. Or you may decide you don't like the idea at all. That's why no clothing is included with the camera and plates.  

I repeat, how you run your studio is up to you: no rules, no restrictions, no fancy franchise contract. And how much you make is also up to you. The business can be operated so many ways that there's no saying what the profit potential is. You can concentrate on lucrative special events and enjoy a relaxed schedule (Elbinger was able to make a living while working only two weekends a month, when operating from the van). Or you can go for a fixed location, which means longer hours and more money.  

A word about pricing: Doug's projection of $35,000 for the 1975 season is based on an average retail charge of about $10.00 per picture. A higher or lower rate might be appropriate in a different location. Elbinger can help with some quick market research if you need it.  

Profits aside, there's something to making tintypes that you can't put a price tag on: the satisfaction — corny as it may sound — of watching your customers actually learn something from the product you sell them. The public knowledge of antique photography is very limited, and you'll find that people generally approach the studio in a skeptical frame of mind. They expect a gimmick ... maybe a polaroid camera hidden inside the wooden box. Once they touch the plates and see themselves in real tintypes, though, they begin to have a whole new appreciation for this part of our history. The change in attitude can be a lot of fun to observe.  

I could go on ... but if you're interested, you'd do better to write Elbinger & Sun who are located in Michigan. Doug can fill in the details ... and maybe get you started in a 19th-century business that's just right for today.  


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