tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A carpenter saws a plank.

In the mid 19 century, a variety of men had staged pictures of themselves taken at work, from artisans and clowns to engineers and preachers; they chose to have their lives represented by the day-to-day activities of their occupations. Subjects indicated their occupation or trade through the items in hand and the clothes they wore.

The tintype, one of the earliest photographic processes, was often used for portrait photography. The photograph was made by creating a direct positive on a thin sheet of metal coated with a dark lacquer or enamel and used as the support for the photographic emulsion.

Tintype portraits were at first usually made in a formal photographic studio, like daguerreotypes and other early types of photographs, but later they were most commonly made by photographers working in booths or the open air at fairs and carnivals, as well as by itinerant sidewalk photographers.

Because the lacquered iron support (there is no actual tin used) was resilient and did not need drying, a tintype could be developed and fixed and handed to the customer only a few minutes after the picture had been taken.

In other words, the tintype was a cheap, fast, easy-to-make, practically indestructible type of photograph that became enormously popular among the working class. For common laborers and their families, the opportunity to join the ranks of those who owned pictures of family and friends, the upper classes, was momentous.

The subjects of the portrait photographs collected in this article are plumbers proudly holding their wrenches and pipe cutters, carpenters with their saws and lathing hatchets, textile workers with their spindles and yarn, icemen with their tongs.

These people lived and worked at a time when a depersonalized factory system run by production and efficiency experts was beginning to dominate the American industry and culture. Many of the men and women in these tintypes were part of a disappearing class of self-employed artisans and journeymen; their portraits proudly stress their individuality and the essential nobility of their work.

The tintype began losing artistic and commercial ground to higher quality albumen prints on paper in the mid-1860s, yet survived for over another 40 years, living mostly as a carnival novelty.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A carpenter poses with a hammer and nail.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Stovepipe makers with hammers and tin snips.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A carpenter with a square.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A man holding a hammer and wrench.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A painter with brushes and paints.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Two plumbers working on a pipe.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A tinsmith with a coal heater and sheet of tin.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Two tinsmiths.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Tinsmiths cutting a sheet of metal.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Painters with brushes and buckets.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A carpenter with a square and ornate balustrade.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A mason with a trowel and sledgehammer.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A painter painting a window frame.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Carpenters with various tools.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Three plasterers.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Two men and a boy with saws and calipers.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A mason with a chisel and mallet.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A cigar-smoking plasterer with a trowel.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A stonecutter with a child.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A workman with a hammer and wrench.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A carpenter with a toolbox and square.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A barber with a Union soldier customer.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

A blacksmith holding a horseshoe with pliers in one hand, and a hammer in the other.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Foremen, Phoenix Fire Company and Mechanic Fire Company, Charleston, South Carolina.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

[Occupational portrait of two African American chimney sweeps.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Newton Stevens, Son of Otis & Sarah Stevens. One time music teacher also classroom teacher

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Mexican War drummer.

tintype Occupational portraits 19th century

Occupational group portrait of four shoemakers, one full-length, standing, other three seated, holding shoes and shoe making equipment.

(Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Bequest of Herbert Mitchell / Library of Congress).