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Ferrotype.  An early photograph contained in a metal frame, always diestruck. The "iron type" photograph was one of several early photographic processes. Where ferrotype gets its name was a photo image on very thin sheet of coated iron, a process called Japanning, but was more popularly called tintype. These photo images became widely used for campaign items, particularly for U.S. presidential candidates. Tiny photos were inset in metal frames most often made into lapel or larger pins for wearing. The diestruck frames, made of white metal, or more commonly of brass, were designed with decorations, occasionally with lettering. All ferrotypes are fragile and the photo images fade when exposed to strong light. Infrequently two photos – as presidential candidate on one side, vice president on the other – were made into a two-sided ferrotype.

The use of ferrotypes grew from the many diestruck medals made in the 19th century for presidential elections. It was a way of informing an electorate of what the candidate looked like and occasionally bore a very brief campaign slogan (in a time when communication was not that rapid and illustrations of candidates were nearly nonexistent).

Despite the many steps in their manufacture, ferrotypes could be manufactured at a lower cost than solid diestruck items. Even though ferrotypes somewhat replaced earlier medallic forms, they, in turn, were completely replaced by the later inventions of the lithographed and celluloid pins.

History of the ferrotype.  The combination of a photo inset in a frame was a unique development in the Connecticut Valley of New England which had a vibrant metalworking industry and early embraced photography. In 1856 D.F. Malby of Waterbury invented malainotypy, the process of Japanning or placing a photo image on a coated sheet of highly polished black enameled metal; the photo image appeared as shades of gray in contrast to the black enamel. Earlier photographic processes had been used to illustrate candidates, including daguerreotype (first used in the presidential campaign of 1848) and ambrotype (1854).

Ferrotypes were widely in use in the 1860 elections when Abraham Lincoln ran against three opposing candidates including Stephen Douglas. Three different Lincoln images were incorporated in more than sixty different kinds of ferrotype frames (Lincoln's photos are dated by the absence, or presence and the length of his beard).

The ease of trimming the thin sheet metal for the frames led from the early circular or oval form to unusual shapes often made into larger items for wearing, called shell badges. After diestruck and trimmed, the piece was pierced. The photo was cut out from a sheet with many images and inserted within the frame then crimped closed. Occasionally a ferrotype shell badge was hung from a header – itself a shell and often a spread-wing eagle – to form a multiple-part badge. The ribbon used to connect the two elements was commonly an American flag or a red-white-blue ribbon.

Ferrotypes were last used in the 1888 presidential campaign. Celluloid buttons were developed and completely replaced them in the next presidential election, in 1892.


                      Ferrotype Terms                    


    Ambrotype – photo image by use of collodian.        

    Daguerreotype – earliest form of photograph.         

    Donut – the circular frame is highly domed.         

    Flakes, Flaking – tiny areas of photo image         

         removed by wear.                                

    Japanned – photo image on enameled sheet iron.      

    Oval – photo image showing in oval shape.           

    Shell badge – photo image in frame of unusual       

         shape, some of several parts connected          

         with a cloth ribbon.                            

    Tintype – photo image on thin sheet iron (it        

         contains no tin).                               


O18 {1959} DeWitt, p 638-639, footnote from page 196.

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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