Dating Very Early American Daguerreotypes

Each of the portrait below contains interesting information that will add to your knowledge of the very early period. Please click on them for an enlargement.

This first scan presents a sixth plate daguerreotype from 1840-41, as you would view it when the side hinged case has been opened. The immaculate brushed velvet burgundy pad is unadorned. The portrait displayed is quite typical from the period. "Blast lighting" was so effectively used that there isn't even a reflection in the man's lenses. The heavy, unmarked plate was cut from a larger piece of stock. It has square corners, flat sides and evidence of a broad perimeter band (from the plate holder) on the top and left side. The surface appears to be singly sensitized. There are heavy buff strokes visible and random circular swirls. The very heavy layer of varnish apparently repelled every possible contaminant because the surface is pristine. The layers of patina and their colors provide an interesting look at the natural aging process.

D6-725a The second scan was made of the cover which was produced in died green leather. The single lines form a large rectangle and frame a fancy rosette in each corner. There is a single small brass eyelet and clasp on the right and both sides of the case are domed in the center. It is an elegant container.


D6-730 and D6-730a The unknown daguerreotypist wasn't taking any chances as he buffed this sixth plate. First, he furrowed the silver conventionally, making strokes horizontally across the short side of the plate (for a vertical portrait). Then, he also buffed the surface in the vertical direction. Remarkably, the image of a man holding a large book or wooden box is quite strong. "Odeon" is written in large letters. My dictionary gave this definition: "a contemporary theater or performance hall (from ancient Greece or Rome)." I don't know what the connection might be between object and man, but it is fascinating. There are irregular, narrow clipped corners on the very heavy plate that was cut from a larger piece of rolled silver and copper. The crude paper mat is wider than most. I think the maker moved his camera further away from his client for this likeness. Notice how the man's shadow is cast in a ghostly fashion to the right and also, that the edge of the plain drop is visible on the left. Yes, "blast lightening" was used and the date was 1840-41.

The case is a brightly dyed red leather, with a side hinge and several sets of rectangular lines on the cover. It is flat on both surfaces. The velvet liner is black and unpadded.


#59 This sixth plate shows a distinguished gentleman seated at a table. The silver layer has funky circular plate faults and nice patina inside a wide oval brass mat. Because of the long exposure his face is slightly blurry and apparently he blinked at least once. There is a strange ghosting around his entire frame, caused by breathing and movement. While the direct lighting is fairly primitive, coming from the right and slightly above, it nicely accentuates his portly features. He is turned away from the camera and stares intently to the left, probably to avoid looking directly into the light. The likeness was made using a perimeter band plate holder in the camera. The edge of the image is distinctly terminated inside the top of the mat. The daguerreotypist managed to create great tonality and the man floats away from the gray drop. There isn't a hallmark and the plate is very heavy and has square cut corners. It doesn't appear to have been cleaned. All physical properties indicate an 1840-41 date.


D8-77. I don't know the significance of the three Roman numerals, III, written in blue ink on the under side of the gold gilded paper mat or the 40, written in the same ink in the bottom of the leather case that is hinged across the top; but I can say that it is uncommon to see a woman posed on a plate at the turn of 1840. The scientist who was practicing the daguerreian methodology captured a strong image of the lady. Her skillfully embroidered net pelerine is strongly rendered while her face and the lace lappet with flowers, pinned to her hair, are less sharp. The softness points towards a long exposure time. Although oxidation is encroaching upon the lady from all sides, I still can decipher one very instructive lesson that the maker used effectively. Notice that behind the woman's head, the background is darker. Since his harsh illumination bathed the room from the left side (almost in the consummate Rembrandt style) he calculated that the cloth behind her could be arranged by "cupping" a portion of it in the center to create a shadow. Consequently, her headpiece and face are better contrasted and have a three-dimensional relief. Quite an outstanding accomplishment at the time. The plate is like most of the other ones that were taken from a larger piece. There isn't a hallmark.


D1-151 and D1-151w. A pair of magnificent, very early resealed ninth plate images, dated June, 1841, in the bottom of one of the identical cases. They are most likely of a young husband and wife, possibly singly sensitized and certainly not gilded. The heavy, hand cut plates with square corners and flat sides are both heavily buffed. The man, in his 20's, is very close to the neutral gray drop. The lighting is from slightly above and right. His head shadow is visible behind his grossly distorted neck and shoulders. His torso fills the small frame and he is surrounded by a paper mat gilded with gold leaf. The focus on his face is actually quite sharp and he held very still during the long exposure. His dark eyes are softer, probably because he blinked. They are concentrated on some object beyond the lens. There is a strange circular area behind his head that is lighter than the rest of the drop and his forehead is also brighter than the remainder of his face. He is wearing a white shirt with a folded down collar, a dark tie that crosses his throat (held in place with a stick pin) and a dark jacket.


The woman, about 20, is much softer overall than her mate, I think more from movement than any other cause. She is also tightly composed inside an identical paper mat. Her shoulders are turned slightly off center from the lens and she peers away. A nice smile is upon her lips. The lighting is similar but overall her image is brighter.  She has brown hair that is loosely curled over her ears and is shoulder length. She is wearing a dark dress with a modestly  scooped lace bodice. Around her neck is a dark chain and an invisible piece of jewelry hidden by the lace. There is also a halo of light evident around her head on the backdrop, but no noticeable shadow. For some unknown reason she is hardly distorted. Neither plate appears to have been chemically cleaned but hers has several blemishes while his, except for a small scratch  across his forehead revealing the copper, is in great condition. The cases that they are housed in are wine colored pigskin leather with ribbed pads and case liners that are a similar color. Both cases are hinged at the top.


D6-728 "William Rex to Miss Cote taken in Boston, 1841" is written in pencil on the bottom paper of a typical top-hinged quarter plate leather case. The superbly shot proper Bostonian is a poetic achievement! Mr. Rex has been posed by a very confident daguerreian who was obviously influenced by great artists who had previously applied paints to canvases. His use of the carefully arranged curtain as an ending to the portrait, created such magnificent lines and shadows that it could almost be a study itself. Fortunately, the shooter was intent on portraying his subject as an important person and he instructed Rex to turn his torso sideways. The maker placed a portion of the drape over the back of the bench (an unusual arrangement indeed) and asked Rex to rest his arm on top. His other hand was held relaxed on his lap. The tremendous composition is certainly unique for 1841. Notice how Rex's legs and lower hand construct a solid foundation. The small contours in the cloth under his other arm begin to propel our gaze upwards. The contrasting dark mass of his chest and bright white shirt front continue our visual path, pausing for a moment to study his fine facial features. Then we can't help ourselves as our sight soars beyond him into the magical columns of diverging shades. Walking down the Nave of a medieval Cathedral on a sunny day, gawking in all directions at once, trying to disseminate all the grandeur and beauty of the ancient construction is akin to explaining my ideas about this masterpiece. The man selected a low camera angle, as his coup de maitre. It appears that his light source was broad and entered the studio from above and directly behind the camera. The plate was crudely cut from a larger piece. It has square corners, flat sides, and no hallmark.


D3-91 A classic very early sixth plate daguerreotype portraying a young man seated ramrod straight. His large hands with fingers entwined are pressing tightly against his stomach. He is holding his breath and has firmly locked his jaw in anticipation of a long exposure, certainly more than 30 seconds. Two broad pinpoints of light reflected in his eyes, a lack of facial shadows and a faint head shadow on the neutral gray drop indicates that the source of the bright illumination was directly behind the camera and the sitter was nearly placed against that drop.

I doubt if a head restraint was used for this remarkable portrait. I am very impressed by the sitter's ability to concentrate and not move or blink during the exposure. The cut of his dark jacket, with tightly fitting sleeves and broad lapels, a flamboyant, gaily patterned lighter vest, a white shirt with a turned down collar and a small, tightly knotted dark tie created quite a fashion statement in 1841. His wonderful flat hat with a wide band, crowning his curly locks might provide a clue to his occupation. The plate, with a Corduan & Co NY impression is a masterpiece in itself. It is a heavy, flat plate with all four sides slightly trimmed, creating square corners. There is a single striation across the top and bottom, inset about 1/8 of an inch. The buff marks are heavy and in rather random directions. I think that the plate was sensitized more than once and because of the superb toning (which I don't believe comes from a gold chloride bath) I feel that one of the chemicals was definitely bromine. The man is framed by a brilliant gold leafed rectangular paper mat and the package was sealed with a fibrous medium blue paper that covered the entire reverse of the plate. The bottom of the top hinged leather case (which had an intact spine until the previous owner dropped it) was lined with shiny dark blue paper. The cover has a pair of scribed rectangular lines that cross at the corners and inside the squares are identical six-sided leafy designs. Another double line is along the outside edge of the cover and reverse, which is otherwise plain. All these incredible facts are wonderful but almost secondary because of the nearly pristine the condition. The plate has typical smoky tarnish inside the mat.


D4-110 An outstanding very early sixth plate masterpiece presenting a lovely young girl. She is wearing a black off-the-shoulder dress and long, thin dark ringlets gently caress her bare shoulders. Her hands were probably folded in her lap, but they are hidden from the lens since this is a tight bust shot. She has turned her noble head slightly to the left, lengthening her lean neck. Deeply set dusky eyes peer upwards and away from the shooter. Her thick lips are firmly set and there is an overall softness; for two distinct reasons. Being an experimental portrait, circa 1841, the lens was crudely manufactured and she undoubtedly moved during the lengthy exposure. Yet there are exceptional details in her curled hair and the folds of her dress, because the illumination was created by a professional who had already mastered brightness and shadows. The brilliance of this resealed, heavy plate can't be overstated. The hallmark is the rare and desirable Corduan & Co., NY. Three of the sides, which are all flat, have been cut down and the corners are square. The encroaching tarnish which is quite broad inside the gold gilded, rectangular, paper mat. There is a heavy shellac or varnish covering the surface (something I have noticed on almost every very early plate that doesn't appear to have been gilded. Even those examples that are barely gilded might also have an extra additive of varnish). A wide perimeter band plate holder secured the plate inside the camera and the surface was heavily buffed. The very early, transparent, gut style tape formed the original seal. The broken leather case was hinged at the top and has rectangular lines on the cover. There are two types of flowers in each corner and the reverse has the smaller flower in the corners, without lines. The pad is purple silk.


D5-156 After much consideration I suspect that this sixth plate is a brilliant self-portrait. It was probably taken after the young man, about 21, had returned from a journey to New York City, where he learned the art of making a daguerreotype. He would have purchased the necessary equipment and returned to his home in Madison, CT., to create his marvelous effigy. The resealed, very heavy plate was cut from a larger piece of stock and has no hallmark. The corners are square and the sides are flat. A medium width perimeter band plate holder held the segment inside the crude camera. The fellow, who was descended from the Colonel Jonathan Samuel Wilcox family, put the camera at a low angle and slightly misjudged his placement on the ungilded, cold, steely gray surface. He leaned upon a small dark table after removing the lens cap and remained stationary during the exposure. His hand and arm are definitely blurred from taking off and replacing the cap. The illumination accentuated his prominent nose and reflected dimly in the top center of his right eye. His pose is rather regal, with slightly turned shoulders and a tilted head, under a mane of fashionably long, scattered strands of dark hair. The grand distortion of his shoulders, cloaked by a heavy, lumpy coat contrasts well against white shirt sleeve cuffs and a collar turned over a thickly knotted, fancy cravat. The gentleman had power and obvious wealth. He is framed by a thin paper rectangular mat that was brushed with gold leaf. The typical leather case, with a broken hinge on the top, has two heavy brass clasps and eyelets on the bottom. The dual rectangular lines scored on the front and reverse surfaces of the leather are intersected in the four corners by sharp diagonal lines. The thin velvet pad is black and the experiment was probably conducted in the winter of 1840-41. It is an amazing testimonial to the excitement created by the daguerreotype. While the random buff strokes are seen at most angles, there is one position where the subject is strongly rendered. The surface has moderate oxidation and there are scattered mold spiders. Small, oddly shaped chemical spots are seen in the neutral gray drop.