The Daguerreotype Revolution

“Their exquisite perfection almost transcends the bounds of sober belief.”
– Lewis Gaylord Clark, The Knickerbocker Magazine, 1839

The daguerreotype process reached America in the fall of 1839 during an economic depression that had begun with the Panic of 1837. Despite hard times, the new technology took America by storm.

There was great demand for portraits captured by the “miracle” of photography, but early daguerreotype technology had shortcomings, especially the extremely long exposure times, which required subjects to sit still for some twenty minutes. Daguerre himself recognized this limitation and observed that many “difficulties [would need be overcome] in order to succeed completely.” American ingenuity provided the answer.

Americans began to experiment with the process almost immediately. Neck clamps limited the movement of subjects during a sitting. Mirrored systems to increase light and improved chemical techniques reduced exposure times to less than one minute. Although it is impossible to say who created the first daguerreotype portrait, all the claimants were Americans, and the daguerreotype acquired a particularly American identity. Even the leading daguerreotypists in London and Paris advertised “Pictures taken by the American process.”

By 1850 American daguerreotypists were producing in excess of three million daguerreotypes each year. There were more daguerreotype galleries in New York than in all of England. Yankee ingenuity and entrepreneurship had transformed a cumbersome and exotic technology into an everyday service accessible to a burgeoning middle-class clientele.

Unidentified. Baltus Stone, Veteran of the American Revolution, 1846. [zoom]
Daguerreotype, quarter plate

This daguerreotype of Baltus Stone (1744-1846), taken at age 101, is a rare photograph of a Revolutionary War veteran. Stone is one of the earliest-born men ever photographed.

On loan from the Stephan and Beth Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection.

John Plumbe Jr., (attributed to). John J. Halsey, 1844. [zoom]
Daguerreotype, sixth plate

One of the earliest daguerreotypists and a pioneer of “franchise” photography, Plumbe operated galleries in several cities during the 1840s, including New York, Philadelphia, Boston, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Paris and Liverpool.

Unidentified. Young Woman, ca. 1850. [zoom]
Hand-tinted daguerreotype, quarter plate

From the first days of photography, the public sought color in their portraits. Hand-coloring on daguerreotypes ranged from lightly rouging cheeks to completely coloring the image.

Jeremiah Gurney. “The largest and most perfect Daguerreotype establishment in the United States.” Broadside advertisement, ca. 1853-1856. [zoom]

Jeremiah Gurney, active from 1840 to 1874, was one of the best-known photographers of his time and one of the first American daguerreotypists. In this advertisement, he draws “particular attention” to the Mezzograph, a term he used for the common process of creating a paper copy of a photograph from a daguerreotype. During the early years, photographic terms were not standardized. A single common process might be referred to by as many names as there were photographers employing it, and the use of such proprietary names could serve as a valuable marketing tool.

Brady’s First Book Illustrations. Sampson, M. B. Rationale of Crime, and Its Appropriate Treatment: Being a Treatise on Criminal Jurisprudence Considered in Relation to Cerebral Organization. [zoom]
Additional images:

New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1846. The popular 19th-century pseudo-science of phrenology held that the shape of the skull was related to character and behavior. Prison reformer Eliza Farnham, an advocate of phrenology, edited this work on crime and criminals. The engravings were made from some of the earliest Mathew Brady daguerreotypes. Farnham’s preface acknowledges the contribution of “Mr. Brady, to whose indefatigable patience with a class of the most difficult of all sitters, is due the advantage of a very accurate set of daguerreotypes.”

Montgomery P. Simons (attributed to). Henry Clay, ca. 1848. [zoom]
Daguerreotype, half plate

A dominant figure in American politics, Kentuckian Henry Clay (1777-1852) served in Congress for almost 45 years. An avid proponent of strong central government, he supported protective tariffs, the use of federal funding to build infrastructure, and a strong national bank. The “Great Compromiser” was instrumental in brokering the Compromise of 1850, which is frequently cited as being responsible for postponing the Civil War by a decade. A friend of Clay’s named Potter helped arrange the pose when Clay sat for this portrait. When the photographer asked Clay if he would like to choose a position, Clay’s answer was, “None whatever sir, I am Clay in the hands of a Potter, let him mold me as he will.”

On loan from the Stephan and Beth Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection.

Mathew Brady. Receipt from Brady's Daguerreian Galleries, 1853-1859. [zoom]

This receipt acknowledges payment of $35 for four daguerreotypes, approximately $900 in today’s dollars. The document features a “View of New Gallery” that depicts a visit to the grand reception hall of the Brady Gallery. The engraved receipt served as an artistic memento of the experience and a promotional piece detailing the gallery’s range of services.

“President Taylor And His Cabinet,” 1849. [zoom]
Lithograph, 15 5/8 x 23 7/8 in.

The daguerreotype process created a one-of-a-kind image. Lithographic artists often drew upon daguerreotypes to create prints for sale to the public. To make this print, the lithograph artist combined eight, separate daguerreotype portraits.

The caption briefly identifies the subject and then promotes Brady’s firm at length: “President Taylor And His Cabinet. Published by M. B. BRADY Daguerreian artist. From his celebrated Daguerreotypes taken at Washington, April 1849. The original portraits are for exhibition with many others at Brady’s National Gallery No 205 Broadway New York.”

Splendid Daguerreotype Miniatures Taken in Every Style by E. S. Hayden, ca. 1855. [zoom]

This broadside advertises the services of itinerant photographer E. S. Hayden. Hayden emphasizes his ability to create images “that can be seen equally well in any light,” a reference to one of the difficulties inherent in the daguerreotype process. Because of the daguerreotype’s mirror-like surface, the viewer must hold the photograph at an angle so as to avoid seeing a reflection.

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