When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found tin in use by the indigenous peoples for making ornaments and other objects. The Spanish settlers themselves used tin or tinplate throughout the colonial era.
Tinplate, which has a long history (its manufacture was described by an 11th century German monk), is produced by dipping thin sheets of iron into molten tin to coat them. In the late 18th century, improvements in the tinplating process in England allowed the British to produce and export large quantities of tinplate. Much of the tinplate imported into Mexico for making tin objects in 18th and 19th centuries came from England. Related to tinplate is steel plate, which became common after the Bessemer process for steelmaking around 1850; and terneplate, a sheet of iron or steel coated with a tin-lead alloy.
Tinplate was popular for its shiny surface, perhaps resulting in its nickname, the "poor man's silver." Tinplate's popularity was enhanced by the fact that the tin surface is highly resistant to corrosion and friction. However, if the surface is scratched, then the iron beneath may be exposed to humidity and subsequently begin to rust. This rusted surface is found on many antique Mexican tin frames and niches.
The low cost of tin and the ease of working it fostered local tincraft industries in colonial New Spain and later in independent Mexico. The objects produced in this cottage industry were probably distributed by vendors who traveled from village to village and at local fairs and markets. Utilitarian items made from tinplated sheets included lamps, candlesticks, lanterns, frames, and canisters. Among ecclesiastical objects produced-especially for humbler churches-were altar ornaments, crowns for statues of saints, sconces, frames and niches for religious pictures, reliquaries, and processional lanterns.
Tinplate was also used to create tin frames or niches (boxlike structures, sometimes using glass, to contain and display an object, usually a religious object). Many such tin frames and niches were created in various styles, identified, for example, as "federalist" or "neoclassical" by art historians, based on the designs on their surface or the appendages added to the body of the frame or niche. The pieces that were to comprise the frame or niche were first cut from a larger sheet of plate, using tin snips or shears. Then designs were added by means of stamping, in which a piece of tin plate is hammered from the front with a punch specially shaped into dots, crescents, etc.; embossing, similar to stamping except that the tin is punched from the back; and scoring, in which a straight line is drawn or stamped on the piece. Finally, the pieces of tin were soldered together into the final construction.
In the beginning of the 19th century, with the influx of inexpensive British tinplate, folk artists began using the tinplate as a surface for religious pictures, both retablos santos (pictures of saints) and ex-voto retablos (votive paintings). On some of the retablos santos there are solder marks present, which likely indicates that the picture was at one time attached to, or set into, a tin niche or frame.
Around the end of the 19th century, the retablos santos painted on tin were replaced by the cheaper lithograph print. However, tin frames continued to be produced and often a lithograph print would be enclosed in a tin frame. Some of these frames have attachments on their top or sides in the shape of roundels, rosettes, scallops, etc. Others have painted glass or reverse-painted glass. The prints that are set in these frames are usually pictures of Jesus or of popular advocations of the Virgin from local churches. The framed prints were typically included in home altars. Tin frames with lithograph or other prints were made at least through the 1940s and 1950s.
Another common practice was to place a statue or carving of a saint inside a tin niche. The niche might be decorated with column-like designs or appendages (as with the frames described above). Inside the niche, surrounding the saint, might be other objects such as dried flowers.
In the 1930s and '40s, some Oaxacan tinsmiths who had been producing tin-framed religious pictures, developed a particular type of niche made of tin and glass in which was housed an image of the Virgin of Juquila (an advocation of Mary popular in Oaxaca). The image itself was made of sawdust and glue, then painted and clothed. Such images are still made today.
Tinplate frames and niches continue to be produced in a great profusion of forms and with a variety of purposes. They might enclose a saint or a bouquet of dried flowers, they might frame a mirror or a holy card or a family picture, and they might incorporate a wide variety of materials in a creative multimedia display.
Coulter, Lane & Maurice Dixon, Jr. (1990). New Mexican Tinwork: 1840-1940. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Giffords, Gloria Fraser. (1999). Un metal noble. [A Noble Metal.]. Artes de Mexico (44):8-19 (Spanish) and 82-85 (English). Special issue topic: Hojalata [Tinplate].
Egan, Martha J. (1999). Tenacidad de un oficio. [Tenacity of a Trade.]. Artes de Mexico (44): 20-43 (Spanish) and 85-90 (English). Special issue topic: Hojalata [Tinplate].
Tin frames and niches page