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Another World: The Strange and Exotic Forms of Early Photographs

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circa 1890 tintype of baseball star Cy Young, with the image on iron.

circa 1890 tintype of baseball star Cy Young, with the image on iron. From the Frank Walker collection.

Those unfamiliar with early photography are amazed when they are shown the strange, exotic and often beautiful forms these images take on, and learn of the often exotic materials used to make them. This column is a quick look at some common and uncommon types of early photographs, giving you an idea why sports and non-sports collectors are attracted to these historic gems. Later columns will go into the specifics of identifying, dating and authenticating of individual types.

Early metal and glass photographs

People are surprised when they learn that many 1800s photographs are not paper, but metal, glass and, in rare cases, wood, leather and cloth.

Invented in 1839 France and called the Daguerreotype, history’s first practical photograph has the image on a silver-coated sheet of copper. It is prized by collectors for its historical significance and magical mirror-like images. These old photographs were usually housed in small ornate cases, which resemble little books that, when opened, display the photos framed and matted.  Daguerreotypes of sports subjects are extremely rare and desirable.

1846-7 Daguerreotype of poet Emily DIckinson

1846-7 Daguerreotype of poet Emily Dickinson

The Daguerreotype was supplanted in popularity by the ambrotype which has the image on a pane of glass backed in black. They were also commonly housed in little book-like cases. The ambrotype was in turn replaced in popularity by the tintype which has the image on a thin sheet of iron resembling tin. Many American Civil War photographs are tintypes, and tintypes can be found showing everything form family portraits to animals to athletes.

Baseball tintypes are popular and valuable in the sports collecting hobby. Tintypes are sometimes found in cases, bus also frame-like envelopes or au natural. Tintypes peaked in popularity in the 1860s-70s, but were made as late as the early 1900s.

ambro

1860 ambrotype Abraham Lincoln campaign pin

Identifying Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes

If the photos are removed from their cases, it’s easy to tell the difference between the three photos. Ambrotypes are on a pane of glass. Daguarretoypes are metal with a distinct mirror-like quality. You will be able to see your reflection in the image as if it’s a mirror. Also, the images on Daguerreotypes appear and disappear as you change your viewing angle. Tintypes, on the other hand, are also metal but with a duller brownish finish and don’t have that mirror-like, image-disappearing qualities. You can see the image from all angles on a tintype. The ultimate test is the magnet test. As it is iron, a tintype is attracted to a magnet, while a Daguerreotype is not.

Rarer ‘hard’ 1800s photos

1860s opalotype on pale white glass

1860s opalotype on pale white glass

 While most metal and glass photographs are Daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes, there are other, much rarer 1800s ‘hard’ photographs. The scarce opalotype has the the image on a pane of white glass, called milk glass. The images are distinctly pale white, though are often hand colored or tinted. The orotone, also called the gold-tone, has the image on a pane of glass backed in genuine gold. Orotones are prized for their golden, three dimensional appearances, and premium examples can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The even rarer ivorytypes have the images on real or fake ivory. They are hand painted and framed, resembling little portrait paintings.  Opalotypes, orotones and ivorytypes of sports subjects are extremely rare.  I’ve seen one baseball opalotype and only a couple baseball orotones.

oro

early 1900s orotone of American Indians by famous photographer Edward Curtis

Invented in the early 1900s, the first true color photograph was called the autochrome and has the image on a pane of glass. The images are lush, but usually dark compared to modern photography and have a tendency to fade. Autochromes of sports subjects are extremely rare. As you might expect, autochromes are delicate and will shatter if dropped.

Card photographs

Most 1800s paper photographs are card photographs, meaning the paper photograph was pasted to a sheet of cardboard. The early photo paper was thin and delicate and the cardboard was required to support and preserve the images. Card photos come in various sizes, large to small. The cardboard backing is usually larger than the image, come in a variety colors and often have ornate printed or embossed designs. The photography studio name is often stamped on the front and/or back for easy identification. Card photos show everything from 1800s celebrities and sports stars to family portraits and nature scenes.

 Common names and sizes of card photographs are the cabinet card, measuring 4-1/2 X 6-1/2 inches, and carte de visite (CDV for short), measuring 2-1/2 inches by 4 inches. Photographs larger than 20×20 inches are rare an called mammoths.

1890s cabinet card of heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan

1890s cabinet card of heavyweight boxing champ John L. Sullivan

Many late 1800s baseball cards and other trading cards are little card photographs. The little 1880s Old Judge baseball cards sold in packs of cigarettes, are card photos with thin paper photos attached to cardboard backing. Sometimes called the first baseball card card, the 1869 Peck & Snyder Cincinnati Red Stockings is a small card photograph.

1860s stereoview of a baseball game

1860s stereoview of a baseball game

 Stereoviews, or stereoscopic photographs, were antique card photographs used as popular forms of entertainments. The card had two images and gave a three-dimensional image when viewed through a special viewer. A family would own a box full of stereoviews, each stereoview depicting an entertaining subject. Subjects included far away places and interesting people. 

CDV of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball team

CDV of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings

Creative imagery

While we think of creative photo images such as collages and photoshop trickery as a thing of modern times, 1800s photographers were often highly imaginative They sometimes made large composite photographs, meaning a photograph made up of many smaller photographs. These were often used for sports team photos, each smaller image showing an individual athlete.

Cabinet card of a baseball team with a creative composite design

Cabinet card of a baseball team with a creative composite design

Crayon portrait photograph of baseball star Kid Nichols from his estate

Crayon portrait photograph of baseball star Kid Nichols from his estate and sold by Lelands

 Crayon and chalk portraits were artistically manipulated images that appear to be a cross between chalk or crayon drawings and photographs. They were photos that were embellished with chalk and crayon, and often have colors added.

Real photo postcards

 

circa 1930 real photo postcard of baseball star Babe Ruth with silent movie star Harold Lloyd

circa 1930 real photo postcard of baseball star Babe Ruth with silent movie star Harold Lloyd

Introduced in 1901, real photo postcards are postcards with genuine photographic images on one side.

Real photo postcards were used for a variety of purposes. Most were the equivalent of family photographs intended to mailed to relatives or friends or to be put in the family album. However, some show celebrities and famous athletes, and were sold commercially.

The backs of many real photo postcards have the original letter, stamp and postmark. Real photos postcards are a popular segment of collecting.

 

About David Cycleback

David Cycleback is an art and artifact historian and an internationally known authentication expert. He has advised and examined material for major auction houses and institutions, and was a writer for the Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, the standard academic reference. Reprinted by Beijing's Three Shadows Art Center, his guides "Judging the Authenticity of Prints by the Masters" and "Judging the Authenticity of Photographs" were the first comprehensive books on the subjects published in China. You can find his books for sale on eBay here: http://bit.ly/1mixAcg. He can be reached at [email protected].

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