A Photo Mystery of Top Hats and Tin

By Maureen A. Taylor

Sign up for the Family Tree Newsletter Plus, you’ll receive our 10 Essential Genealogy Research Forms PDF as a special thank you!

Get Your Free Genealogy Forms

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.
photo top hats

Susan Ellerbee found this fascinating tintype of a man in a top hat in a collection once owned by the daughter of her mother’s brother. She’s pretty sure he’s from her Mom’s side of the family.

It’s a tintype. There are the telltale signs. It’s metal and not reflective. It’s coated in varnish to protect the surface.

Susan wants to know how to store it for safekeeping. A simple non-pvc sleeve purchased from a museum store company, the Container Store, or even Michael’s will do the trick. It’s in good condition so the sleeves will keep it that way.


Tintypes in poor condition need different care. Those with a flaking surface should be placed in an acid and lignin free paper envelope. Also available at vendors mentioned above.

Top hats

This man is dressed to impress. Most men took off their hats to be photographed, but this fellow chose to be captured wearing it. He’s out for the evening? Off to a special event? Or is an important person?

Top hats were already an old style when this man posed. They are credited to a George Dunnage, a hatter from Middlesex in 1793. Top hats evolved over time. Flat brims or curved. High crowns or low. Even the color varied. Some were beaver and others were silk.


Lincoln wore one called a stove-pipe hat. Winston Church often wore a grey one. Other names were cylinder hat, chimney pot hat or by it’s nickname—topper. These toppers were worn everyday by some men of position even into the twentieth century. They remained common for state funerals and important occasions after World War II.

Studying the hats alone for identification clues can be difficult. There are so many styles. In this case we have a full portrait of her unknown man for fashion clues.

His fitted frock style coat with small lapels dates the picture to the 1880s. The studio props include a post to lean on.

With the Steampunk movement, top hats are back in fashion. Really!

I hope having a time helps Susan figure out his identity.

Editor’s Book Recommendations: Family Photo Detective