One of the most important tools that we have for dating items in our collection, and a tool that sets our time period apart from earlier periods, is photography. In many cases, the only evidence for the existence of a particular garment is photographic, and in assigning a date range to our holdings, we must compare them to garments in surviving photographs. Luckily for us, the 1845-1865 period was a period that was heavily photographed, as a huge number of people were invested in developing the fledgeling science.
The first commercially viable photography process was invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre. The daguerreotype process at its most basic required the sensitization of a polished silver-clad copper plate using iodine. Then, the image was exposed in a very simple camera and the plate was fumed with heated mercury to develop the resulting image. The final result was an incredibly detailed and hauntingly beautiful positive image. The resolution of these images allows us to examine the textiles worn in them with a high degree of clarity.
The height of popularity for the daguerreotype, generally speaking, was the period from 1839 to 1855, with some operators practicing the process as late as 1863. This period likewise marked a global shift in the textile industry. This transition was heavily influenced by the advent of commercially viable sewing machines, which in turn gave rise to a boom in the ready-made clothing market. Particular fashion trends are evident in the daguerreotype record, like the “M” notch collar, which faded from popularity before other photographic processes superseded this one. Additionally, the fit of men’s garments stay fairly consistent during this period of photography, and by comparing images to extant garments, we can draw conclusions about probable manufacturing dates.
As the science of photography progressed, experimenters attempted to produce satisfactory results with low-cost materials. The ambrotype was the result of one such series of experiments, and it became a hugely popular photography format for a few years. The ambrotype process is a variation on the collodion process. It was invented in the early 1850’s, with United States patents dating to as early as 1854. It involved the washing of a plate of glass with iodized collodion and silver nitrate. While the plate was wet, it was exposed in a camera. The resulting negative image was developed and fixed, and backed with a dark material, to display the image in the positive.
As the ambrotype gained popularity, the ready-made garment industry hit its stride. In the ambrotype record we can observe factory-made garments across almost all socio-economic classes. Within these images we can mark the major changes in the fit of men’s clothing that began around the outbreak of the American Civil War. A careful observer may note the contrast of 1850’s and 1860’s garment fit in a single image, which can allow for the narrowing of date ranges for garments with a high degree of accuracy. The ambrotype remained a popular photography technique through the end of the Civil War, despite competing with the tintype process. It is safe, therefore, to assume that any image made using the ambrotype process dates approximately to between 1854 and 1865.
Nearly concurrent with the ambrotype process, the tintype process was developed. The first United States patent was applied for in 1856. It, too, was a wet plate collodion process, though this utilized a silver halide solution. The process went by a few names, most famously “tintype,” but “melainotype” and “ferrotype” were also commonly used. The variations in names had to do with competition for market space among materials manufacturers. A manufacturer of iron support plates, for example, might favor the moniker “ferrotype". The image quality was good, and the medium itself was quite durable. The popularity of this process surged around the onset of the Civil War, and the fit of the garments found in these images are quite distinct compared to earlier periods.
In the early 1860s, the cut and assembly of coat sleeves changed dramatically. The comparatively slim sleeves of the 1850s were replaced by overly large sleeves that, when viewed from the side, were shaped distinctly like a capital “D”. The popularity of the sack coat skyrocketed during this period, and they appear frequently in the tintype record. The tintype period of the late 1850’s through the 1890’s spans a much larger date range than the other photographic processes. As a result, it bears witness to the most dramatic changes in clothing fit, style, and construction. The early tintype record alone documents a significant shift because of the transformation of the garment industry during the Civil War. As a result of these complexities, it is easy to improperly date garments within the tintype record. Accurate dating of tintypes requires some attention to detail, in particular the emulsion and photo support material, especially when dating tintypes to The Merchant Tailor Museum’s period of focus.
By studying original “hard images,” as these processes are colloquially called, we can compare pieces in our collections to pieces documented in the photographic record. Careful observation can help us narrow down date ranges and familiarize ourselves with the look and construction of garments in those periods, and in turn, make informed decisions about dating the garments in our collection. There are also dating clues and details can be gleaned from the cases and brass hardware used to mount, protect, and display these images, but that would be best served by an article of its own.
We also gain an extensive amount of information by examining contemporary copies that were made from the processes mentioned above. The carte-de-visite, for example, is an albumen print process first patented in 1854.
These prints were hugely popular through the 1870s, and “CDV” prints were made of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. Because of this, it is challenging to date images in CDV format without familiarity with other formats and detailed knowledge of fashion history. The prints themselves can be dated using material clues. For example, revenue stamps were affixed to CDV prints from 1864 to 1866 in an effort to generate fiscal support for the Civil War. Contemporary photographic prints/copies are their own nuanced subject, and would also be best addressed by their own complete article. The field of 19th century photography is vast, and this is at best a cursory primer to a subject that could be studied for several lifetimes.
The photography of the 19th century provides an invaluable and unique resource to our time period, and familiarity with it is one of the many resources we utilize to analyze our collection. Close study of this field in conjunction with our holdings allows us a detailed glimpse into the material culture, mindset, aesthetics, and values of the time.