I reunite identified family photos that I find in antique shops and second hand stores with genealogists and family historians. If you see one of your ancestors here and would like to obtain the original, feel free to contact me. Donations of pre-1920 photographs are also most welcome. I hope you enjoy your visit!
~The Archivist

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Girl in the Ambrotype

This ambrotype of a young girl is probably the oldest photograph in my collection.  The ambrotype was first used in 1851 and was patented by James Ambrose Cutting in 1854.  Eventually, it became the photograph of choice, overtaking the earlier Daguerrotype in popularity.  The Ambrotype is actually a negative image on glass made positive with a black backing.  Most often it is cased, as you see above.   Ambrotype use died out around 1880, though never as popular as it was in the mid-1850s, due to the invention of tintypes and cdvs.

Since we know this is an ambrotype because the image is on glass, we can say it was made between 1851-1880.  You can differentiate an ambrotype from a daguerreotype with two tests.  First, the ambrotype will not have a mirror like image when you look at it from different angles.  And secondly, a daguerreotype image is created on metal, so a magnet will stick to it.  An ambrotype will not attract a magnet because it is glass.

We can further narrow down the date on this item, though.  Assuming it is original, we can say that the case is probably an early one.   In the last half of the 1850s the mat and preserver (made of brass) became highly ornate.  As you can see, ours is quite plain.  It probably dates to 1855 or earlier.  Costume experts might be able to narrow down the dates even more.   This is probably the only likeness in existence of this particular sitting.  Ambrotypes, for the most part, were one-offs. 

I found this ambro at an antique show and sale in Red Deer, Alberta about 20 years ago.  The problem with ambrotypes is that they are so often unidentified.  This one is no exception.  It is highly unlikely that I will ever learn the background story of this young girl.

If you would like to learn more about Ambrotypes and see some great ambro images, I would suggest searching out Beautiful Ambrotypes  by Paul Cox.


  1. I always enjoy reading your posts, as I often learn a great deal about this area of photography, of which I know little, myself. I started reading here when I first acquired a set of 120-year-old photographs, myself. It's been interesting, tagging along while you share what you know. Thanks, especially, for today's post!

  2. Hi Jacqi,
    Thank you so much for your comment! It made my day. I'm glad you found the post helpful. I'm learning, too, with each photograph I find. Thanks for following! ~Carol

  3. Agree with Jacqi. What a find this site is! I just love browsing through your posts - I may have to start posting some of the images I have, as well. (And BTW, I am in Alberta, too! :)

  4. Hi Dawn, thanks for stopping by. It's great to hear from a fellow Albertan. Have a wonderful Christmas!