My grandmother passed away at the age of 89 a few months ago, and I was going through some of her old papers when I came upon this wonderful tintype photograph of my great great grandmother. Her name was Mary E. Hampton Ashford, mother of George Hampton Ashford, who was my grandmother's dad. It looks to me like this photo was taken in the late 1870s - early 1880s, probably in Arkansas because that is where she was from.
To me, my great great grandmother looks like the girl next door, yet there is a haunting quality to the image because of the wonderful nature of the tintype process, and the tumultuous era it was taken in. A tintype photograph is produced by making a direct positive image on a sheet of iron metal, which is then blackened by painting or enameling, resulting in a photographic emulsion. There is no actual tin used on the images, but the finished product is remarkably resilient -- this photo of my great great grandmother is about as thick and durable as a credit card.
You didn't have to be rich to get one of these things made in America -- the people who created the majority of these tintype images tended to work outside carnivals or local fairs. The photographs could be produced a few minutes after they were taken. I don't know if it's possible to reproduce what the actual image looks like with a scanner or a camera -- physically it looks like a thin sheet of silver with an image that doesn't appear to be printed on the outside, but is instead on the inside -- part of the thin slab of iron -- almost like a tiny mercurial mirror peering into the past.
It's funny, as I wrote this brief post, Microsoft Word warned me several times that I needed to stop repeating the word "great" every time I wrote great great grandmother. I guess there aren't too many people who even know who their great great grandparents are, less yet can look at an actual photograph of an ancestor from the nineteenth century, so the term "great great grandparent" is not one that is commonly used by many people. I assume that will change as more and more people live longer. I guess my great great grandmother's tintype is the oldest man-made thing I own, aside from some smelly old comics I have from the 1950s packed in a plastic container.
As I look at this beautiful young woman with her whole life ahead of her, this tintype photo really brings home the fact that the Civil War was a long time ago in terms of mankind's technological development, but really only yesterday if we look at the whole of human history.
The quality is not as good because the image is slightly damaged, but here's another photograph I also found today of my great great grandmother, taken a few years later -- right after she got married.