The Last Full Measure: Civil War Photographs from the Liljenquist Family Collection
The Photographic Process
The invention of wet collodion photography processes in the 1850s led to the development of two new kinds of photographs—ambrotypes and tintypes. Primarily used for portraiture, these new formats shared many characteristics with the earlier daguerreotype process but were quicker and cheaper to produce. Each photo is a unique camera-exposed image and was available in standard sizes based on the whole plate size of 6.5 x 8.5 inches. Other plate sizes were fractions of that size—the most commonly used was the sixth plate. Examples from half plate to sixteenth plate are represented in the exhibition.
- Imperial or mammoth plate: Larger than 6.5 x 8.5 inches
- Whole plate: 6.5 x 8.5 inches
- Half plate: 4.25 x 5.5 inches
- Quarter plate: 3.25 x 4.25 inches
- Sixth plate: 2.75 x 3.25 inches
- Ninth plate: 2 x 2.5 inches
- Sixteenth plate: 1.5 x 1.75 inches
James Ambrose Cutting patented the ambrotype process in 1854. Ambrotypes reached the height of their popularity in the mid-1850s to mid-1860s. Cartes de visite and other paper print photographs, easily available in multiple copies, replaced them.
An ambrotype comprises an underexposed glass negative placed against a dark background. The dark backing material creates a positive image. Photographers often applied pigments to the surface of the plate to add color, often tinting cheeks and lips red and adding gold highlights to jewelry, buttons, and belt buckles. Ambrotypes were sold in either cases or ornate frames to enhance their presentation and protect the negative with a cover glass and brass mat.
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Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters. Quarter-plate ambrotype. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
[Digital ID # ppmsca-36454]
Three unidentified soldiers in Union uniforms and forage caps. Quarter-plate, hand-colored ambrotype. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
[Digital ID # ppmsca-27135]
Tintypes, originally known as “ferrotypes” or “melainotypes,” were invented in the mid-1850s and continued to be produced into the twentieth century. The photographic emulsion was applied directly to a thin sheet of iron coated with a dark lacquer or enamel, which produced a unique positive image. Like the ambrotype, tintypes were often hand-colored. Customers purchased cases, frames, or paper envelopes to display their tintypes, which were sturdier than the glass ambrotypes.
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Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform and Company B, 103rd Regiment forage cap with bayonet and scabbard in front of painted backdrop showing landscape with river. Quarter-plate, hand-colored tintype. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
[Digital ID # ppmsca-26988]
Unidentified soldier in Union uniform and slouch cap with infantry insignia holding revolver to chest. Ninth-plate, hand-colored tintype. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
[Digital ID # ppmsca-27036]
Unidentified young soldier in Confederate uniform and South Carolina forage cap with Palmetto insignia. Sixth-plate, hand-colored tintype. Liljenquist Family Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
[Digital ID # ppmsca-27190]
Cased images usually include the image plate, typically on metal or glass, a brass mat, and a cover glass wrapped together with a brass preserver—all fitted inside of case. This package opens like a book and can be hand-held or propped open for display. The cases, made of leather or a thermoplastic, were designed for both protection and adornment.
Thermoplastic cases and wall frames were made of shellac and other compounds that could be heated and molded into various shapes and designs. The outside of a case or the frame could be plain or embellished with patterns, flowers, figures, historical or patriotic themes, or other subjects. These durable cases are often referred to as “Union Cases” so named because of the combination of materials used in their construction.
One side of an open case often features a lining of embossed velvet. The colors range broadly and often complement the hand-colored image on the opposite side. Some of the fabrics are remarkably well-preserved because light has not faded the intensity of color.