Ambrotypes & Unknowns

I have five ambrotypes that I am trying to identify and save for future generations. Their identities may remain a mystery though as I haven’t really thought of a way to identify them other than comparisons to other photos and looking for family resemblances. I’ll need to invest in a magnifying glass shortly.

Ambrotypes are photographs on glass. The back is painted black or mounted using velvet to make a positive image. The photos are presented in cases to protect the glass from being broken or exposed to the elements. They were popular between 1854 and 1865 sandwiched between daguerrotypes and tin types in the history of photography. The framing around the photos grew more elaborate as time went on so I am using that fact to assume these were taken in the later date range. The clothing and accessories look to be correct for that 1863/5 time period as well. On each of the photos in the collection the cheeks of the subject have been pinked and their jewelry/buttons have been painted gold. These were found in a box of photos and memorabilia that were with Grandmother Learlye’s hope chest items which makes me think they are from one of the Lax lines (Lax, Wade, Wilson, Ralls). That is a total guess.

Ambrotype 1

Guessing Civil War Soldier. Other photos were found with this one in similar cases which makes me think they are all from the same family and taken at the same time.

At some point I will post better images. These were taken with my phone and you can see the flash reflection over the top of the glass. I tried to improve the quality using Photoshop, but I really need to start over using my actual camera. Four of the photos are in this post. The fifth photo is too degraded to get much of an image. It looks like a close-up portrait of a lady, but it is really just an outline.

Ambrotype 2

Love him. So dapper.

More information about ambrotypes can be found here: or on many other websites devoted to the history of photography. There are entire boards on Pinterest and many historic sites displaying family collections. You can also buy them on places like eBay if you just want to collect them. The images are one of a kind. I know from our family history that money for things such as photographs would have been spent with care and these would have been precious keepsakes especially during a time of war. Now if I can just figure out who they were.

It makes me sad not to know the names of these faces. With selfies so ubiquitous now it is odd to think that I have no visual record of so many recent ancestors, and it makes finding out who these people are seem even more important. Documenting our lives now is so easy and fast and most people have some kind of access to do it without even thinking. We delete bad photos without a care. Back then, this family would have needed to sit still for up to 30 minutes just get this one image of their loved one. No deleting or editing. No filters or funny faces. It wasn’t for entertainment. If it was lost or damaged there was nothing to replace it. These images feel like art to me. They tell me part of the story and I am eager to learn more.

Ambrotype 4

Who is this beautiful child?


  1. One Strong Southern Girl January 11, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    What I learned today: the meaning of ambrotype. Thank you! You’re so right that we take for granted the ease with which we can document our lives today (with images and words preserved (forever?) online). Sad to see these brothers, fathers, children and friends of someone at some time in the past, but who are now nameless with lives and experiences unknown. I hope you’re able to identify them. Great post!

  2. Anonymous January 9, 2017 at 10:14 am

    Love this! Let us know when you find out who they are!


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