Five very short stories imagined
from an old tintype.
Only one is true.
from an old tintype.
Only one is true.
Clutching a small wooden case to his chest, the man walked gingerly up the narrow plank from the river bank unto the photographer's barge. He knocked on the door and a short, burly man in an apron opened it. "Yes sir, please to come in. All is prepared for your portrait today. The light is especially nice this morning. If you would sir, sit just there by the table" He gestured at a chair under the skylight.
The man placed the case on the floor and took out a shiny brass cornet from it. "I'm headed down South soon. The brigadier says it might be next week. I'd like to have this in the picture too. Is that alright? Don't want it to cost extra."
"Yes, of course. The photograph will be the same - 15 cents." He gestured to a display. "And please you may choose a fine case for it too. The prices are from 30 cents to a dollar."
The man frowned and then nodded. "Yes, something nice." He placed the cornet on his knee. "This is for someone special."
The young woman took the handkerchief from her uncle and wiped her eyes. Her tears seemed unable to stop. The quiet murmur from about the house seemed to envelope her in a soft cloak. She couldn't recall ever seeing so many people in the house. Her uncle put his arm around her.
"She had a good long life and the end was peaceful." He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small black box. "I found this up on the mantle in her bedroom. She'd want you to have it." He handed it to her.
"Thank you. I've thought about him all last night. I was only 8 then." She opened the case and stared at the face. "She loved him so much. He should have been here. He shouldn't have gone ..." She sobbed again.
Her uncle patted her on the back. "Yes, I know, honey. It was a sad time then too. But it's twenty years gone now." He looked at the photo. "That boy surely could play a good tune. His cornet band led many a parade around here. Oh, how my feet would ache after those dances too."
The drawer was heavy and humidity had made it tight in the desk. So the boy pulled harder. With a loud crash it dropped onto the floor. "Careful!" his father cried. "The stuff in there is very old. Don't go breaking your grandmother's things."
The boy took out a handful of photos. They smelled of dust and mildew. In the bottom was a black leatherette box fastened with a small clasp. It looked like a little book but as he unfolded it he saw that it held a dark picture of a man. "Who's this fellow with the horn?"
His father peered over his spectacles and looked at the face. "I believe that would be your great-uncle, Grandma's brother. He died in the War between the States." He went back to sorting through the papers.
The boy twisted the photo against the light from the window. "Why's it so black? Was he a soldier or something?"
His father looked up. "That's a tintype - a kind of old style photograph. It's made of metal instead of paper." He reached over and ran his fingers over the gilt frame. "Grandma said he joined a regimental band from upstate. Got killed in some battle in Virginia." He paused. "I wish I could remember his name."
The shoeboxes were old and didn't look too strong. She shifted a few to make some room to set out the photos she had selected onto the table. Forty, maybe fifty with the postcards. Not bad. Why was the light always so dim in these places? It was like the light bulbs were antiques too. She picked up the pile of photos and took them to the counter where an old man sat behind a cash register. "How much for these?"
"A quarter apiece." the old man said. "You like old photographs? I got a few older ones over there." He pointed to an old jewelery display. "Been picking them up for years from old estate sales and charity shops. Got some real nice ones that must be pretty old."
The woman took a stack of the dark embossed boxes and began to quickly flip open the covers. The usual somber looking people of the shadows stared back at her. Here's a nice one. Some guy with a bugle. That might fetch something good at the next auction and pay for the drive out here. She put a dozen onto the counter. "I'll give you twenty for the lot"
The door to the office was open again and a fuzzy tail beat a flourish from under the desk. Keeping two dogs in the house now meant three times the fuzz on the carpets. The retriever already had a strong claim on his wife, so the new dog had quickly sorted out who to follow and had now become his constant companion. It was nice that he seemed such an undemanding dog with a calm temperament. Still, he was young and until they figured him out he would need watching.
The desk was cluttered with vintage postcards and photographs. Some were in folders, some in clear sleeves, some awaiting their turn on the scanner. He was disappointed that the scan of that new tintype was not as clear as he would like. Maybe a different resolution could resolve the silvering and bring out more detail on the cornet.
Where was that plastic box? The old tintype case was missing it's cover and the glass needed protection. He thought he'd put it over there on the lower shelf, but it was not there now. And where did all these strange little crumbles come from?
He went down stairs to ask his wife. But the evidence of the crime was now scattered on the front rug. "Arrgh!" he shouted. "Bad dog! Bad, bad, bad dog!" The tail vanished behind the sofa.
The preceding narratives were inspired by this Tintype photograph of a young man holding a 19th century cornet on his knee. He is dressed in a spotted waistcoat and wide bow tie and looks to be around 20 years of age. The photographer has added a hint of red color to his cheeks. The photo is a 1/6th plate size (2.75 x 3.25 inches) and the remaining case is a typically American style but there is no identification of subject or photographer. The image above has been improved with digital software to enhance the tone, lighting, and contrast.
The glass has now been replaced. The dog has moved on. The teeth marks remain.
The style of the man's clothing, as well as the period for the photo and case, strongly suggest he posed for a camera sometime around 1858-60. While it is not the earliest kind of tintype, it is not like the later ones either. Tintype photographs were also called ferrotype photographs which is more accurate as the metal plates were not made of tin but of enameled iron. They were first introduced in 1856 as a cheaper and less breakable alternative to the older daguerreotype and ambrotype photographs which were made of glass. Tintypes were popular during the Civil War era of 1861-1864 but became less attractive in the decades afterward when the Carte de visite and then the Cabinet Card photos offered clearer images and most importantly, allowed copies to be made inexpensively.
This cornet player holds an instrument that is called a Top Action Rotary Valve Cornet in B-flat. At the website of brass instrument specialist Robb Stewart, I found a very close match for it. Mr. Stewart describes a similar B-flat T.A.R.V. cornet made in Boston by Benjamin Franklin Richardson in the decade of 1856 to 1859. This instrument belongs to the collection of Wayne Collier, and he had Mr. Stewart bring the cornet back to playing condition. The photo on the right shows it before restoration and without mouthpiece, but it looks nearly identical to the cornet in the tintype. Note that tintype photos, unlike film or glass plate negatives, produce a positive image that is a mirror reversal.
During the early to mid 19th century, brass instruments with rotary valves competed against those with piston valves to become the favorite of the emerging brass bands. For a short time during the Civil War era, the rotary valve design was the most common, but by the 1880s the musical instrument companies in the United States were manufacturing primarily piston valve brass instruments. This is the style still used today in modern tubas, euphoniums, and trumpets. The modern French horn remains (mostly) the only common rotary valve instrument.
What can one say about the sad people who lived in the shadow world of tintypes? The later cdv and cabinet card photos usually advertised a photographer's address to give a location. Those photos have subtle differences in card stock and color that let us give general dates for the prints. They even have a blank area of card paper where a name or date could be written. But tintype photos have none of these. They are an enigma with more questions than answers. A mirror from another time that reflects our imagination.
While preparing this post, I found this beautiful video made for the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY. It shows exactly how an early tintype photo was made.
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone celebrates vintage photos this weekend.