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Boston College collection of cased photographs

Collection MS-2019-002: Boston College collection of cased photographs


  • Creation: 1840s-1910s

Content Description

This collection contains examples of mid-to-late 19th century cased photographs. They include daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. Cases are largely wood covered in leather or papier mâché, but there are also a couple of examples of thermoplastic (Union) cases. Most images are portraits of individuals, from children to adults. While there is limited accompanying information, both photographers and subjects are believed to be from Massachussetts.

Restrictions on Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

These materials are made available for use in research, teaching and private study, pursuant to U.S. Copyright Law. The user must assume full responsibility for any use of the materials, including but not limited to, infringement of copyright and publication rights of reproduced materials. Any materials used for academic research or otherwise should be fully credited with the source. The original authors may retain copyright to the materials.

Historical note

The first photographic print is credited to Nicephore Niepce in France around 1827, but it was not turned into a viable commercial process until Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre expanded on Niepce's experiments to produce a durable negative image on a polished metal plate in 1839. Termed daguerreotypes, these small portraits were housed under glass in small cases to protect the fragile image surface and became popular across Europe. Daguerreotypes were in common production in the United States by the mid-1840s.

The invention of the collodion emulsion process by Frederick Scott Archer in 1848 created a cheaper alterative to daguerreotypes. A collodion negative on glass placed over a dark backing to render it positive was called an ambrotype. Ambrotypes became popular in the 1850s and gradually replaced the daguerreotypes as a means of portraiture.

Developed in the late 1850s, a collodion negative on a thin sheet of steel known as a tintype in turn replaced the ambrotype because of its affordability and flexibility. While the tintype was also sometimes housed in a case, its lightness and durability allowed it to be housed in a paper sleeve and could be mailed to friends and family. While the popularity of tintypes held on into the early 1900s, one-of-a-kind cased photographs were entirely replaced by the technology of glass or plastic negatives and paper prints in the twentieth century.


Rosenblum, Naomi. A World History of Photography. 4th ed. New York: Abbeville Press, 2007.


1.25 Linear Feet (1 container)

Language of Materials

No linguistic content; Not applicable


This collection contains examples of mid-to-late 19th century cased photographs, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes.


Photographs are arranged by photographic process.


Purchased from Chester Urban (2019).


Emulsion: The light sensitive layer in a photograph, which sits atop a support of metal, glass, plastic, or paper and holds the image.

Hand-coloring: cased photographs were all based on black-and-white emulsions. These were sometimes lightly painted before being enclosed in the case to create a more lifelike appearance.

Preserver: an extra layer consisting of malleable metal tape used to bundle the daguerreotype, glass, and mat together. The preserver served to protect the more fragile tape that held the bundle together, and to reduce the amount of air reaching the surface of the metal plate. The front edge of the preserver is generally visible as a decorative trim between the glass and the case edge.

Union case: a molded case made out of thermoplastic, a composite (or "union") made by heating sawdust and shellac. The Union case dates to about 1856 or 1857.

Boston College Collection of Cased Photographs
Lynn Moulton
2019 January
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the John J. Burns Library Repository

John J. Burns Library
Boston College
140 Commonwealth Avenue
Chestnut Hill MA 02467 United States