Photography was announced 161 years ago, in 1839, by Louis J. M. Daguerre. The French government awarded him a lifetime pension in return for his teaching the world how to make daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes were made that same year in American and enthusiasm for the invention swept the country. Edgar Allan Poe commented in January 1840: "The instrument itself must undoubtedly be regarded as the most important, and perhaps the most extraordinary triumph of modern science." People marveled at the detail captured by the camera. In the same article Poe wrote: "For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely (we use the term advisedly) is infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands."
Before photography, only the wealthy could afford portraits to create lasting representations of their loved ones. The daguerreotype answered this need and the vast majority made were portraits. More daguerreotypes were made in America than anywhere else, probably because America had a sizeable middle class that could afford to have one made.
Most of the portraits show dignified, serious looking people. Partially this was the style of the times, but there were also technical and economic reasons. Exposure times were long: it is much easier to hold still for several tens of seconds with a composed expression. The typical price of a daguerreotype was several dollars, which was a significant expenditure for most people.
Daguerreotypes have an attractive and unique appearance. However, the process was difficult, involved toxic chemicals and daguerreotypes could not be readily duplicated. Eventually the technology of other photographic processes improved and the daguerreian era ended. The processes was only popular from about 1840 to 1860, so almost all daguerreotypes are at least 140 years old.
Because of their fragility, daguerreotypes must be protected behind glass. The American style was to protect the daguerreotype in a book-like case. When closed (right), the case was a small box with a decorated exterior; when open (left), the right side displayed the daguerreotype behind glass. This case is very typical, with a leather exterior with a tooled design. The interior is slightly unusual in the extent to which the daguerreotypist name is advertised: "Anson / 589 Broadway / N-Y" on the fabric liner and "Anson", "Broadway" on the brass mat covering the daguerreotype.
Anson is Rufus P. Anson, who started as a daguerreotypist in 1852 and was located at 589 Broadway from 1853 to after 1860. The heavy advertising is probably because "Anson" was one of the large establishments for which Broadway in New York city was known. It is unlikely that this image was created by Anson himself--in 1860 he is known to have employed 15 photographers. An 1856 description of his establishment: "Anson's gallery is decidedly superior. It is most tasteful in its arrangement, and great order and cleanliness are preserved throughout. The specimens all show the artist's hand. This gallery deserves the most liberal patronage."
The daguerreotype is a unique photographic medium with a look and feel that cannot be reproduced in any other form. The image is created on a mirror of silver. To a very limited extent, this image of two young girls conveys the appearance of a daguerreotype, perhaps because of the polishing marks visible in the background. Sadakichi Hartmann gave a good description of the appearance and viewing of daguerreotypes: "What a strange effect. this silvery glimmer and mirror-like sheen! Held towards the light, all substance seems to vanish from the picture; the highlights grow darker than the shadows, and the image of some gentleman in a stock or some lady in bonnet and puffed sleeves appears like a ghostlike vision. Yet, as soon as it is moved away from the light and contemplated from a certain angle, the image reappears, the mere shadow of a countenance comes to life again."
While people of the time were impressed with the detail rendered by the camera, they were disappointed that the images were monochrome. Intense efforts were made to develop color photographs, but the first popular process, the Autochrome, didn't appear until 1907. What many consider to be the first really satisfactory solution (Kodachrome) appeared in 1935, almost a century after photography was invented. Other less popular or less successful methods of color photography had appeared before but did not gain widespread use. In the meantime, hand coloring was popular. This daguerreotype has a delicate wash of colors on the woman's shawl and gold paint on her jewelry. The gold accents were the most common coloring (were people particularly proud of their jewelry?) and the first daguerreotype on this page is another example.
Here we have three gentlemen. The mat of the daguerreotype in the left is stamped "McClees" and "Phila.". This one is the work of James E. McClees (1821-1887) or an assistant and was probably made between 1857 and 1860 when he had an establishment on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. The mat of the image on the right is stamped "Higgins". There were several daguerreotypists with this name, but this is probably Benjamin L. Higgins since Craig's Daguerreian Registry notes that he is know to have stamped mats "Higgins". He seems to have worked as a daguerreotypist from about 1846 to 1856.
Mother and baby is one of the most traditional subjects of paintings. In this image the small baby has a large role in the composition because of the size of its clothes. The blue sheen of the baby's clothes results from overexposure. A master daguerreotypist would have viewed this as inferior workmanship, but I find the effect rather attractive. With a typical exposure of ten seconds or more, the biggest concern of the daguerreotypist was probably that the baby not move and ruin the exposure. The Mother's bracelet and what appear to be ribbons near the shoulders of the baby have been hand-colored.
This pair of images occupies facing sides of a case. Either one little girl was photographed twice, with mother and father, or there were twins. We shall never know. The case is also less common. Most daguerreotype cases are made of wood covered with leather. This is a "Union Case", with a attractive and more deeply molded design. These were the first mass-produced plastic items and were made from shellac, wood fiber and other ingredients. This particular design was produced by the Scovill Manufacturing Company from a mold engraved by Frederick C. Key.
The most popular book on the subject is The Daguerreotype in America by Newhall.
Information about named daguerreotypists is from the book The American Daguerreotype by Rinehart and Rinehart and from Craig's Daguerreian Registry.
The information about the union case is from the book Union Cases by Krainik, Krainik and Walvoord. The union case shown above is #475 in that book.
Many sellers, either ignorant or unscrupulous, label any photograph in a small case as a daguerreotype. A case does not make a photograph into a daguerreotype; tintypes and ambrotypes were also sold in cases in the 19th century. A daguerreotype is defined by the process that made it and is readily identified by its mirror-like appearance at certain angles. Daguerreotypes have a much higher image quality than ambrotypes and tintypes, are rarer, and fetch higher prices. If you are unsure of the distinction between these photographic processes, you should view the wares of reputable dealers, for example, at a meeting of the Daguerreian Society.
The text and images are copyright 2000 by Michael Briggs. They are here for you to view and are not to be reproduced.
Revised 2001 February 1.