The first suggested use of thin, iron plates as a support for positive collodion images was in 1855 by French photographer A. A. Martin, although his work had little influence. In the same year, the “ferrograph” experiments were conducted by Hamilton Smith of Gambier, Ohio. In 1856, Smith patented the process of the iron plate. A year later the process was patented by Smith. Also in that same year, the process was patented in England by William Kloen and Daniel Jones. The process was identical to making a collodion positive on glass, except that the support material was iron. Smith assigned his patent to William and Peter Neff , who manufactured the iron material and called their product melainotype plates, a reference to the black color of the baked-on asphaltum coating, also called Japan black.
A competitor, Victor Griswold, manufactured similar japanned plates for collodion positives, calling them ferrotype plates in reference to the iron support. The term melainotypes never really caught on, but ferrotype, ferrotypists, and ferrotyper were often used during the 19th century. More often than not, however, the public preferred the less formal tintype, implying the cheap, tinny feeling of the material.
Ferrotype plates were less expensive than sheets of glass at the time, particularly the dark-stained “ruby” glass used in making the highest-quality collodion positives, which were eventually called ambrotypes. The metal plates were also not easily broken, allowing them to be carried without worry and sent through the mail, a capacity that led to them occasionally being called lettertypes. Both of these factors contributed to the commercial success of the product. Early melainotypes and ferrotypes were presented in the same style of protective cases used for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes. By the 1860s, they were being offered in paper mats.
Although ferrotypes/tintypes could be made in any size, the most typical tintype format from the late 1860s to the turn of the century was made using a four-lens camera that produced four images on a 5 x 7 inch plate. Called bon tons, the individual images were cut from the plate, positioned in the mat opening, and either glued from the back using a piece of gummed paper backing or later slipped loose into the sleeve of a paper mat. See also Bon ton.
By the late 1880s, a dry gelatin emulsion tintype plate was introduced. This was precoated and ready to use right from the package. Gelatin tintypes were developed in a special developer/ fixer solution. Special laboratory cameras designed for street photography were available by the turn of the century. To make an image, the operator put his or her hand through a gloved opening in the back of the camera to take the plate out of the package and place it into the focal plane of the camera. After exposure, the plate was dropped through a slit in the bottom of the camera into a tank of developer/fixer and was processed for about a minute. Once the plate was fixed, the tank was turned so that the plate could be removed from the solution from outside the camera and placed in a bucket of water to remove the excess chemical solutions. Silver bromide emulsions on double-weight postcard material were also used in these cameras, as well as a paper “tintype” made on black, glazed card stock.