Lewis Black, armed and ready

Today has been a very good day for me, in no small part because I’ve found the second of two items that I’ve been looking for over the course of the last several weeks. As I’ve been inventorying, scanning and rehousing our family history collections, I’ve noticed that two of my most cherished items had gone missing. I wasn’t too worried, because I realized that the reason I could not find them was probably related to the fact that they had been carefully packed away to keep them from harm. But where?

As I was writing today’s earlier post, about the first item I found, I had a vague recollection of where this other lost item was packed away. I went to look in the few places that matched this memory, and there it was—a tintype of a mid-19th century teenager (probably my step great-great-grandfather, Lewis Black) with a pistol stuffed under his belt.

I got this wonderful photo from my father, who believes that he found it among his parents’ family history items after they died. He’s told me that it’s a photo of Lewis Black, but he doesn’t remember whether he was told this or whether it’s a guess.

The image above shows the photo in the state in which I received it—matted, with the corners of the matte folded back to hold the image in place.

The image below shows what the image looks like after being removed from the brass matte:

The image is hand-tinted with both blue and red hues applied to the photo. The simplicity of the background in the photo hints at this having been taken by an itinerant photographer, rather than in a photo studio.

The young man’s right hand is hidden in the matte photograph, but visible once the matte has been removed. On the pinky finger of his right hand is a small ring, set with what looks like a smooth, round stone, perhaps an opal.

The young man is wearing an oversized coat over a collarless, button-up shirt. He is wearing [presumably] blue pants, held up by a wide belt of rawhide leather. The belt buckle is large and rectangular with what I first thought was an abstract design, then thought was perhaps a longhorn cattle over some sort of scimitar.

With a little bit of digital enhancement, the “horns” of my imagined longhorn started to look like eagle wings, which led me to see the eagle’s body, legs, head, and beak.

In a search for 1850s and 1860s belt buckles, I came across images of the distinctive M1851 military belt buckle, below:

This belt buckle—military issue, model 1851—was worn by Army officers and NCOs as early as 1851, but entered its heyday in the Civil War, where it was worn by enlisted men as well as officers.

From what I’ve been able to learn, in many cases (such as examples 1 and 3 above), the wreath is separately made and attached to the brass buckle. This may explain why the top of the wreath (at the viewer’s left) of this young man’s belt buckle is missing—it may have broken off.

The heads of the eagles on the M1851 belt buckles invariably point to the viewer’s left, so the fact that the eagle on the young man’s belt points to the right is strong indication that the tintype presents a mirror-image of how he really looked. Below is a flipped version of the actual tintype to show how the young man really appeared:

This orientation makes a lot more sense to me. It indicates that the young man is right-handed, the federal eagle on the belt buckle points in the right direction, and the left placket of his shirt overlaps the right, as is typical with men’s clothing. His pinky ring is also now seen on his left hand.

The pistol he has holstered under his belt appears to be a Colt Model 1860 Army revolver, a six-shot, .44 caliber pistol that was produced from 1860 until 1873. A photo of the Model 1860 revolver is shown below:

The Colt Model 1860 Army revolver weighed 2 pounds, 11 ounces, was 13 ½ inches long, and had an 8 inch barrel.

Identity of the young man in the photo

I haven’t yet found any evidence inconsistent with this young man being Lewis J. Black. On the other hand, I haven’t found any evidence definitively identifying this young man as Lewis Black.

Because I have no reason to suspect otherwise, I will provisionally accept the conclusion that this young man is indeed Lewis J. Black.

Date of the photo

Tintypes (also known as ferrotypes or melainotypes) were invented by Hamilton L. Smith of Ohio, and patented in 1856, so this provides an initial oldest possible date for the photo. As Lewis was born on September 30, 1839, he would have been 17 in 1856. I would guess that the young man in the photo is about 17–23 years old, so if the young man in the photo is indeed Lewis, the photo would have been taken between 1856 and 1862.

The fact that Lewis is proudly wearing the belt buckle and showing off his Colt pistol suggests that this photo was taken just after Lewis had enlisted to fight in the Civil War. The fact that he’s got a buckle and a gun, but is not [yet] wearing his uniform is also a strong hint that this photo was taken sometime between his enlistment and his first mustering-in (usually about 2–4 weeks after enlistment). He enlisted on August 1, 1861, which would have made him just about a month shy of 22 years old when this picture was taken.

Back of the photo

The back of the photo is unremarkable. There is no writing or other marks, but there are several patches of dark brown varnish that the photographer used to coat the iron plate to provide a dark background for the image. There is a long but narrow scratch through the varnish and into the metal plate. The exposed metal ia a light gray, consistent with it being iron, but at 25x magnification I could see no visible rust.

Preservation and conservation

The photo itself is damaged in many places and, more worryingly, is rusting in several places where portions of the image have been scratched away. This rust, if left unchecked, will grow and will result in more and more of the image flaking away.

I don’t dare clean the copious dust off of the print, whether by brushing with a soft rag or by using compressed air, as I’m sure that portions of the photo would flake off were I to do so.

I’ll definitely need to get this tintype to a professional conservator to stabilize it and prevent any further loss of image due to oxidation of the underlying iron plate.

Leave a Reply