The next time you snap a photograph, take a moment to thank France. Two of its citizens, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and Joseph-Nicephore Niepce, produced the first lasting daguerreotype 175 years ago, after decades of experimentation. Daguerre is honored in the name of their photographic process.
The French government acquired the rights to their invention and made the process free to the world Aug. 19, 1839. It was a runaway success. The public clamored for more daguerreotypes and, following Daguerre’s published instructions, tinkerers began building their own daguerreotype cameras. For the first time, large numbers of people could freeze time in images of themselves and their loved ones—and today, those old images are ours to cherish. We celebrate the 175th anniversary of the daguerreotype with this identification and preservation guide.
Photography is born
Once you’ve established your image is a daguerreotype, you’ve established that it was taken within roughly a 20-year time frame: Daguerreotypes were introduced to the United States in 1839 and remained common until the eve of the Civil War. To narrow the date for your image, you’ll use clues such as the clothing depicted, the materials and design used for the case and mat, and any photographer’s marks. See the Image Gallery for examples of dated daguerreotypes, consult my book Family Photo Detective (Family Tree Books) and consider these details when examining your image:
• Photographer’s marks: Check the brass mat and velvet pad of your daguerreotype case for an engraved or embossed photographer’s name. You can use city directories and the online Craig’s Daguerreian Registry to look up studios, case makers and other daguerreian-related businesses and determine their years of operation. The two-volume print publication Craig’s Daguerreian Registry (self-published) is more up-to-date than the online version.
Handle with care
• Digitize your daguerreotype to preserve the image and limit handling. These images can be tricky to scan because of the reflective surface and the glass layer on top of the image. If your photo scanner doesn’t work, try a camera set on a tripod. To prevent the camera from being reflected onto the image, cover it with black cardboard with a hole cut in the middle for the lens.
• Store the photo wrapped in a clean, soft cloth (old t-shirt material works well) to protect the case. Write any details you know about the image (such as who’s depicted, when it was taken and who owned it before you) in pencil on acid- and lignin-free cardstock. Place this note in an archival-quality box along with the wrapped image.
Anatomy of a Daguerreotype
2. The former US president wears a dignified outfit of jacket, shirt and stock (men’s formal neckwear worn beneath the chin and buckled behind the neck).
3. Jackson, about age 78 when this photo was taken, sits in a chair with a pillow behind him (you can see the ticking cloth).
1. Posing with head on hand and elbow resting on a table helped this subject remain still.
2. The wide tie is unusual for a period when most men wore stocks.
3. Under-the-chin beards were common for men in the 1840s and 1850s.
4. The simple mat has an all-over decorative texture with an oval opening.
5. A handwritten note inside the case (not shown) identifies this man as Prof. Jas. C. Booth and the photographer as Mayall. According to daguerreian reference books, John Jabez Edwin Mayall operated a studio in Philadelphia in 1845 and 1846.
1. The fan-pleated bodice was popular on 1840s dresses.
2. Our ancestors often posed with their hands clasped in front of them.
3. This simple mat has the pebbly texture of 1840s daguerreotypes.
4. Typical for a well-dressed man of the period, he wears a stock, vest and jacket.
1. Ellen McAllister (left) stands on a chair next to her brother, John. In the late 1840s, toddler boys often sported long curls and dresses.
2. The plain octagonal mat with beveled edges is characteristic of an 1840s daguerreotype.
3. Boatneck dresses were common for children in the 1840s and ’50s.
4. The cotton fabric and short sleeves on both children’s dresses suggest warm weather.
5. “W. and F. Langenheim, Phila” is embossed on the velvet case liner (not shown in this image). This is the imprint of photographers William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia.
1. Stamped on the mat is “Whitney, Roch. N. Y.” Edward Tompkins Whitney operated a photography studio in Rochester, NY from 1845 to about 1856.
2. This family’s ages in the 1850 US census suggest that this photo was taken in the early 1850s. The children are arranged youngest to oldest; their parents are seated.
3. The photographer used the classical style column and books (the eldest daughter holds one and the son leans on another) as props.
4. The mother’s wide collar is typical for the early 1850s.
5. Both the son’s plaid pants and the youngest daughter’s plaid skirt (likely, taffeta) were a popular fabric choice.
6. Patterned and contrasting-color vests were popular for men in the 1850s.
7. The photo studio added touches of gold to the mother’s brooch and the eldest daughter’s necklace.
1. This woman may have taken her sewing machine to the photography studio, or a photographer may have brought equipment to her home or place of work. The machine may be a clue to her occupation.
2. Wide cloth or lace collars were common in the 1850s
3. Dresses of the era often had bell sleeves. White linen undersleeves fastened with ties above the elbow.
4. Hair worn puffed over the ears is characteristic of the mid-1850s. Drop earrings accent this woman’s hairdo.
• What type of photo do you have?
• Eight photo mysteries, solved
• Photo-identification clues, decade by decade
• Family Photo Detective
• Fashionable Folks: Hairstyles 1840-1900
• Preserving Your Family Photographs