Antique photographs

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email

One of my areas of expertise is antique photography. I have studied and dealt in antique photography over 40 years. The camera was invented in 1839 with the daguerreotype. The ambrotype photograph replaced the daguerreotype in the mid-1850s. Many of us have photos of family members we can’t identify. Even an unidentified photo has a story to tell.

The ambrotype

The ambro, as we call them in the trade, was the preferred photographic process until it was replaced with the tintype in the 1860s. Ambros are glass, not paper or tin. The first ambros were produced on ruby glass. Holding them up to the light will reveal the color. Ruby ambros have always been more desirable than clear glass ambros.

Clear glass ambros were a little later and were cheaper to produce, thus more plentiful today. Clear glass was less expensive than ruby glass. In order for a clear ambro to be viewed, a piece of black paper was placed behind the ambro. In some instances, the reverse of the ambro was painted black.

A cased ambro with lace and watch paper
Cased ambrotype with lace and watch paper from the Bud Nadeau collection. Photo by Ron Patch

The ambrotype case

The photo with this article is a ninth plate ambro in its original case. It is from the Bud Nadeau collection. The case is hinged like a book with a hook and eye to securely close it. The seated woman looks to the camera with her hands folded in her lap. She wears a wedding ring and a beautiful printed dress. This is a clear glass ambro.

This photo was taken about 1858 by either an itinerant photographer or a small studio photographer in Chester or Bellows Falls. Today, if you went to the eye doctor for new eyeglasses, you would have a choice of frames. Similarly, if you went to a photographer in 1858, you would have a selection of case designs to choose from.

As you look at the cased photo, the sitter is on the right. On the left is a reddish pad. This pad is known as the “pillow” in my world. The photographer would have a selection of pillows for you to choose from. This pillow has an impressed lyre design. This is a clue to the sitter. We may not know her name but likely she was a music teacher or a musician.

This ambro fits snuggly inside the case but is easily removed if you know how. I removed her image from the case and found the watch paper you see along with a piece of round black lace.

Watch papers

Beginning in the 1860s, manufacturers of pocket watches began offering watch papers with pocket watches as a way to further promote their company. The reverse of the watch paper is blank. Here a watch repairmen would write the date and his repairs and insert it back in the watchcase.

This watch paper advertises the “Premier Solid Gold Filled” cases manufactured by “The Philadelphia Watch Case & Co.” It is from a size 16 men’s pocket watch.

Few watch papers have any value today. There is one exception. In the late 1700s on to about 1830 a few pocket watches did have watch papers. These are colorful watercolor portraits in miniature often depicting the watch owner’s spouse. These can be very folky and sometimes valuable.

The round piece of black lace you see is from a woman’s shawl or dress. Items such as these kept by the original owner can tell another story. I offer one possibility.

The sitter in the photo kept these two items as a remembrance of someone close to her. Perhaps the watch paper was from her father’s pocket watch. The round piece of lace is about the same size as the watch paper. This piece of lace probably belonged to her mother. Both items were significant to her.

Any time I find things in an old book, newspaper clippings and the like, I always leave them intact. You don’t want to discard anything like this you find. They were once important to the owner. Keep them together.

From Bud Nadeau was a donation of Bartonsville photos and diaries to Chester Historical Society. These items descended in the Parker family of Upper Bartonsville. This ambro is one of those items. I’m still reading the diaries. I’m looking to find mention of a music teacher in the family. It takes time, but sometimes I get lucky. For me it’s fun.

  This week’s old saying was sent to me by a reader in Acworth regarding my article last week about the 1930s Depression. This was something her grandmother used to say: “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

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