Tintype Buttons, by Susan W. Smith

At the January Ottawa Civil War Round Table’s member participation evening, I took advantage and presented a short review of Tintype Antique Buttons that came from the Civil War Era.

Tintype Buttons

I collect antique buttons as part of an active Ottawa Button Club.  One of our members acquired a unique collection of Tintype Buttons which were collected by the well known and revered Vermont collector, Warren Tice.  My friend suggested I share them with my CW buddies saying, “They will appreciate these unique pieces of history.” They did.

I began my presentation asking if any of the participants collect anything.  All hands went up!  I suggested they would agree that it is the “hunt” for the item that is so exciting.  Kathy Cousins, a collector in the United States published an excellent review of Tintype buttons originally in the Massachusetts Button Society Bulletin in 1999.  This article was reprinted in the summer 2,000 Michigan Button Society bulletin and that is the material that I used for my presentation.

Kathy developed her knowledge of photographs while working for an antique dealer “… one of our country’s most respected collector/historian.” Through her work she met some of America and Europe’s photographic enthusiasts.  She studied reference books and started asking questions about the one type of buttons that linked photographs and buttons – tintype buttons.

From Kathy’s notes  I learned the following:

  • Tintypes were photos with the image on a metal surface that was blackened. They were cheap, durable and instant (available a few minutes after taking the photo). The process was patented in the U.S. in 1856 and, by the end of the Civil War, they were the most common type of photos.
  • The method of Tintypes’ popularity grew in the Civil War. “Itinerant camp photographers followed the soldiers, taking their pictures against painted backgrounds of tents, cannons and battle scenes.”
  • Divided into three sizes:  Waistcoat size(dime), nickel size, and anything larger.
  • The “Real tintypes” are small – about the size of a dime.  Real in that they were commercially manufactured for use as buttons, in fact as waistcoat buttons.
  • The “nickel size”are more likely to have been assembled by photographers for individual sale.
  • According to Kathy Cousins, the process of tinting buttons began in 1870. (top middle and right buttons) Also the author suggests that the larger buttons were made a one-of-a-kind for a customer or for the button collectors.

    Anything large were “created” for the collector.

  • Most waistcoats were women, a single face per button.  (some have two, being a mother and child)
  • These value were taken from the popular button collecting site, C&B Weiser. These were photographs in January 2012.

    Soldiers would sew the button into their uniforms , thus being able to take an image of their loved ones into the battle field.

Kathy ‘s article is the most in-depth review of these unique and historic buttons.  “Tintype Buttons”, by Kathy Cousins, Michigan Button Society Bulletin, Summer 2000, vol. 58, NO 2