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Hunting Humans: Genealogy And Tintype Photos

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The world of genealogy, specifically researching one's own family history, holds many surprises, discoveries, and more information at which you could shake a family tree. Er, at which you could shake a tree. Snicker…   

In the first installment of Hunting Humans, we took a long look at the United States census. A seemingly dry source of information, it is loaded with realities with which to counter many a lively family story — or that can kick life into what was previously thought to be a boring story.

I've found, via the census, a few of my family accounts about long, lost relatives to be most untrue. While the census may have its errors (to enumerate is human), a particular person of a particular age found in a particular geographical location when said to have been elsewhere is not one of them. What wasn't told at the dinner table was often told to the census enumerator.

Case in point from my mother's side: my great-Aunt Odessa. As related to me, Odessa ran away as a pregnant, unwed teen with an attitude problem and a pronounced distaste for her mother (my great-grandmother). The latter may in fact be true as my great-grandmother babysat me many times. That woman was hell on wheels, and I don't mean that kindly. I was further told that Odessa's father (my great-grandfather) met an untimely demise at the elusive hands of my great-grandmother (shh!), and that this had something to do with why Odessa ran away.

The census says my great-grandfather was not dead but rather alive and kicking in another state. He had remarried a woman with three children, and Odessa was living with them. If she was pregnant, no child resulted that showed up in the census as hers; but then the census doesn't ask every question (back-alley abortions, unofficial adoptions, etc.,) and no one has to answer every question posed to them.

Curiously, the story my family didn't want me to know is so much more benign than what they told me.

My great-grandfather and his new wife were the real secret-keepers. In the 1930 census, they both list themselves as being on their first marriage and married for 24 years. We could say the enumerators of both 1920 and 1930 were wrong, or we could say someone(s) had something up their sleeves. The 1920 census clearly lists my great-grandfather, my great-grandmother, and Odessa all in the same home.

Additionally, the new wife's children, sporting a different last name than my great-grandfather and listed great-grandpa’s stepchildren, were all born before my great-grandfather found himself on the other side of my great-grandmother's door. Good stuff, eh? But, I digress.

Alas, we finally arrive at this installment of the wonders of ancestry-ness and explore the earlier realms of photography. 

The tintype, also known as the ferrotype or melainotype, was a process of developing photographs in the latter half of the 1800's. Unlike the photographic paper used in the 20th century, the tintype process used a thin sheet of black enameled iron and was a slightly more durable photo than the ambrotype of the mid 1800's, which used a glass plate. At that time, the ambrotype was preferred to the previous daguerreotype, so named for one of its inventors, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. The daguerreotype used a polished silver surface with silver halide and iodine vapor.

I had no idea of tintypes until a recent trip to see my family in the United States. With the passing of his parents, my father came into possession of many family photos, including several tintypes. Fortunately, the subjects of all but one of these photos had been identified.

I say "fortunately" as there are many families coming across these photos in attics and basements with no accompanying identification. More unfortunate is the discarding of these images for lack of knowing who is who.

My father's only unidentified tintype is the image below of two lovely ladies. Lovely being a relative term. I gotta say, I don't care much for the haunting feel of some older images. A little extra light would've gone a long way.

My father and I decided to see what more light would do, but we were concerned about the effects of flash photography or the light of a scanner on the tintypes. As it was a weekend and reputable photography businesses were closed, we took it upon ourselves to test the corner of a tintype on the scanner with no ill effect. The scans produced clear reproductions so there will be no need to subject the tintypes to this kind of light again.

Those new to tintype or any antique photo but who have a knack for digital repair would do well to maintain copies of original scans to minimize the amount of light to which the photo is exposed.

While certainly durable (my father's tintypes are as much as 142 years old), the tintype does possess certain fragilities and its image is not immune to the elements. Moisture of any kind can cause extensive damage and it doesn't take much to bend the metal or scratch the image.

Dusting or cleaning of a tintype is strongly discouraged as this can remove the image. As with any historical item and/or family heirloom, proper care must be employed with a tintype.

My great-grandfather James Palmer Rankin appears several times in tintype (all of the above except for the ladies) during his days looking for work around Pennsylvania in the late 1890’s and working in the oil fields of the Midwest in the early 1900's.

My great-great grandparents, George and Susannah (Krape) Day, are seen here (at left)with three of their children in 1864. A not altogether delightful looking woman, it is worth noting that Susannah lost three children between the births of Hendrick (left) and George (middle). Reuben and Adam died as infants and Flora died at 18 months of age.

Additionally, Susannah lost another infant, Harry, in 1879. The baby in this picture is Burdo. There is no record of miscarriages or stillbirths for Susannah. Nonetheless, she gave birth to 13 children. My great-grandmother, Sarah, was Susannah's eighth child. Sarah would go on to marry my great-grandfather, James, who appears in the photographs above.

There you have it, my fellow human hunters. Tintypes are special. Don't throw them away, even if you don't know who is who, and take good care of them!

Join me next time for a look at V Mail, where we will explore images of my great-uncle's WWII communications from the South Pacific.

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About Diana Hartman

Diana is a USMC (ret.) spouse, mother of three and a Wichita, Kansas native. She is back in the United States after 10 years in Germany. She is a contributing author to Holiday Writes. She hates liver & motivational speakers. She loves science & naps.
  • serket

    Interesting article, I’ll have to ask my grandmother (who is into genealogy) if she has heard about these. In an interesting family story, my grand-aunt discovered a picture of her grandmother in a box of pictures at an antique store. She wasn’t even sure who the picture was of, but based on the last name she bought the picture and later discovered the identity.

    Have you done an article on genetics and genealogy? You should check out the project at: http://www.smgf.org/

  • dad

    Of all the things you can choose in life, family isn’t one of them. It’s amazing how many stories have been “cleaned up” in the years of retelling. Wonder what the next generations will find out about our family stories?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer.php?name=diana+hartman diana hartman

    Wonder what the next generations will find out about our family stories?

    heh heh…that’s what lawyers are for!

  • Barbara Moon Batista

    Diane: I am interested in the hairstyle of your great great great grandmother Susan Day 1864. I have a similar tintype with no identifier and I am curious about whether or not the style is of the day or from another country. Thank you, Barbara

  • TeLena K Cobb

    I have 14 tintype photos and all but 1 have no identification; another (of a man) has to name of a woman on the back (I think it is a female name). These belonged to my great grandmother and had been passed down to her. Her geneology we can trace; but is there any way to find out who these people are? or when? or from where? Any advice is welcome. thank you, TeLena K Cobb

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