Digest>Archives> August 2009

Collecting Nautical Antiques

U.S. Life Saving Service Tintypes

By Jim Claflin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

Because of an unusual recent find we wanted to take this opportunity to talk about tintype photography this month. Shown is an incredibly rare tintype of a U.S. Life Saving Service Surfman that I recently purchased at an auction. The subject is sitting in a chair, probably in the photographer’s studio. Clearly visible is the gentleman’s cap, with the words [LIFE] “SAVING SERVICE” visible to the camera. His weathered appearance speaks of his long career on the sea. We have long suspected that, like cabinet views and other early forms of photography, there must have been some tintypes of life-savers produced but until now we had never been able to find any. Some years ago photographer and dealer Andy Price was able to find a similar tintype of a lighthouse keeper. Presently these are the only two known to us.

Tintypes, also known as a ferrotypes, originated in the early 1850’s and became the choice for photographers before photographic paper was invented. The use of this form peaked in the 1861-1870 period and began to give way to other forms of photography by 1900. Tintypes were produced on a metallic sheet (not actually tin) instead of the more common glass plates. The sheet was coated and sensitized just before use, as in the wet plate process. The process was introduced by Adolphe Alexandre Martin in 1853 and became instantly popular, particularly in the United States, though it was also widely used by street photographers in Great Britain.

These early metal plates were then placed in the back of a box camera and exposed directly though the camera lens. Because of this all forms of early photography resulted in a mirror image of the subject. The most common size for a tintype was 2 5/8” x 3 1/4” [1/6 plate], but they were made in numerous sizes, the limiting factor being the size of the camera back. Final prints were usually varnished for protection. Because of the black undercoating provided by the tin, a tintype never had the brilliance which the Daguerreotype and Ambrotype had. It was however, the least expensive of the three and became the product of the “cheaper” portrait photographers.

Tintypes were the first inexpensive photographic print and as such, made photography available to the working class. Also, being quite rugged, tintypes could be sent by mail, and many photographers did quite a trade visiting the encampments during the Civil War.

The surfman sports a jacket common to life-savers of the era, but without the brass buttons instituted in the late 1870’s. I would suspect that this image was captured in the early 1870’s, at the inception of the reorganized Life-Saving Service.

As to value of such an item, rarity makes this quite desirable to collectors in a number of categories. I would only be guessing but I suspect $600- 650 would be a reasonable range to begin and it might go a bit higher.

Like our column?

Have suggestions

for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques. net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the August 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History