Thursday, January 13, 2011

Material Culture Minute: "Buy it when you see it."

Last July, I picked-up a special treasure (the subject of a future post) at an antique mall in southeastern, Pennsylvania. As you may recall from that posting, I explained that the item I purchased was something that I had seen the week before and couldn't stop thinking about until I found a place for it on one of my bookshelves. On those two visits, my boyfriend Tyler had looked longingly at a mid-late nineteenth-century occupational tintype.

As succinctly described by the National Museum of American History, "Tintypes were popular and inexpensive photographs made on coated iron plates." Click here to view an example of a four-lens tintype (camera) at the Smithsonian. When you come across tintypes in antiques stores, they are usually either in the form of the image on the tin, the the image on the tin and nestled into a paper frame, or the image on the tin stored inside a decorative case. Those that are not encased and have no name or other provenance associated with them seem to go for anywhere between a few dollars and $20. Prices rise exponentially if the subject matter is more highly collectible or if the sitter is identified, etc. Tintypes were made in several different sizes between about 1860 and the early 1900s. For more on the differences between daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, check-out this "Photograph Identification Guide" by David Rudd Cycleback. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's, CAMEO: Conservation & Art Material Encyclopedia Online also features a brief explanation of tintypes online.

Occupational tintypes in particular are rather special. They depict an individual or a group of people posed with the tools of their respective trades or professions. Dentists are pictured with their dental tools, and tailors are pictured with their shears and other sewing supplies. Tyler's tintype was quite lovely, and it was priced fairly (but not at a bargain-basement rate) at $150. I thought he was going to buy it, but we left the mall twice without it.

Over the ensuing months, the tintype always came to mind when I was considering what to get him for Christmas, his birthday, etc., but I often decided on something else since he had suggested a few times that he was surprised at the extent to which tintypes had risen in value over the past few years. In short, he didn't like the idea of supporting what he considered to be an inflated market (we take these investments seriously, folks). But as his birthday approached, I decided that I would take a drive and look into bringing Tyler's tintype home. I fantasized about how I would package it so that he would be surprised when he finally got to the bottom of the box, but I also had a nightmare in which, upon arriving at the antique mall, the tintype's price had increased by several hundred dollars, thus putting it out of my reach. The realistic side of me thought that it may have been sold weeks ago. After all, the last time we saw it was 24 July.

Despite all this, I was hopeful. I boldly entered the antique mall this morning and walked straight down the middle aisle, eying the glass cases on the left where I had remembered that the tintype was on display. I swept past the toy soldiers, the railroad ephemera, and the Santa Clauses. Everything seemed to look the same. I recognized countless items I had admired back in July. A mid nineteenth-century red and green women's hat, a pink wooden cutlery tray, Wendy Cooper's In Praise of America (I bought that today and added it to the "furniture" section of my growing library), a black spice tin with its spice containers, which was being sold by the same dealer from whom I purchased my own treasure. I thought that surely the tintype is still here also. As I moved to the end of the glass cases, I scanned the shelves at eye-level where I had recalled that the tintype had rested. Finally, I arrived at the end of the cases and started. Something wasn't quite right. The case where I was certain the tintype had been for sale was a mere 10% full, and the tintype was nowhere to be found. I looked elsewhere in the vicinity frantically. No tintype, no cased photographs.

Was it sold? Did the dealer move his booth within the building? Did the dealer leave the co-op?

I inquired at the front desk and learned that the tintype dealer had pulled out of the business entirely. The man on duty kindly pointed out other photographs in the mall, but they were not the tintype.

Curses! My birthday surprise was foiled, and I was now crestfallen.

Happily, I brought a friend along for the ride. After the disappointment settled in, my best friend and I leisurely walked through the mall, chatting away, when Tyler called. I had told Tyler I was meeting my best friend for lunch (true), but I had not mentioned that we would meet at the antique mall on a mission to recover his occupational tintype. Since I would have nothing with which to surprise Tyler, I decided to give him the news.

"Oh, really? How thoughtful!," Tyler exclaimed. "Well, when you see something you like, I guess you should buy it when you see it," he said very matter-of-factly if not somewhat remorsefully.


Disappointed but eager to spend quality time with my friend, we walked through the first and second floors, opening boxes and unfolding quilts. She observed that many of the labels noted that the objects were "old" something-or-others.

"Well, of course they're old!," she said. "This is an antique store, isn't it?"

How true, my friend! How true.

Alas, I had a great time bonding with my friend, but I am sorry to say that neither Tyler nor I had snatched-up that tintype back in July.

Next time, we will buy it when we see it.

Further Reading/References

Check out this dealer's web site of "occupationals" to get an idea as to the breadth of the occupational photography world.

The American Museum of Photography posted "A Primer on [Photographic] Processes online.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting information about tintypes! I am glad to know a little bit more about our quest! I had such a good time with you, and you really know your antiques (or "old" things). Your passion for them is enthralling.