The photograph above is a tiny tintype portrait of kind known as the “gemtype” (click the image to the left for a close-up). Photographers would use special cameras with as many as 16 lenses to make multiple, postage-stamp-sized photographs on a single thin, metal plate, which the customer could then cut up and give to friends and family. The paper mat holding this one is embossed: “Hathaway, Photographer, Glens Falls,” which is in New York state.
We know nothing about the man in the photograph, except that he is almost certainly a white man in “blackface,” which was a costume popularized by the minstrel shows of mid-19th century America. Blackface consisted of blackening a white person’s face with makeup, such as greasepaint or shoe polish, or even burnt cork. In this photograph the man also wears a wig to mimic the hair of African Americans.
The minstrel show emerged in the United States in the 1830s and became enormously successful as a form of popular entertainment among whites. White performers, both professional and amateur, would wear blackface and perform satirical skits and musical numbers, posing as African Americans.