Ninth Plate



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ALBERT SANDS SOUTHWORTH . . . Was born in 1811, in West Fairlee, Vermont. He learned to make daguerreotypes in New York City under the direction of Samuel Morse in the winter of 1839-1840. At that time, Joseph Pennell, a classmate of Southworth's at Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, was already assisting Morse. Together they studied the secrets of the art.

In the early spring of 1840, the two men returned to Springfield, MA, with at least one daguerreotype (taken of city hall in New York) and they proceeded to take several more images, including one of Hampden Coffee House, on the south side of state street, as seen from Merrlains Bookstore, and several places in Cabotville. According to an article in the Springfield Weekly Republican, April 18, 1840, the two men conducted an exhibition at the Mechanics Hall for at least one week, which included the above scenes and the plate brought from the city. On April 16th, a Thursday, the article noted that the men had taken a “pleasing view” of part of Chestnut St. in Springfield. Southworth & Pennell placed an advertisement in another newspaper on the 18th announcing that this was the last day of the exhibition, but at 2 p.m. on that afternoon, they would take some views. Those plates would be exhibited “at Union Hall near the Armory”, on Monday at 2 p.m. "attended with experiments" and at 7 p.m. (Since we know that they could have developed and fixed the daguerreotypes quickly, did the pair hedge their bets and have an extra day if the experiment didn't work)?

Southworth wrote to his sister Nancy, on May 21, 1840, and told her about his New York City visit, meeting with Pennell and buying “an apparatus” to make daguerreotypes. He noted that by then, he could “now make a perfect picture in one hour's time”. (He was referring to an outdoor scene or still life).

The two men continued to conduct further experiments, with portraiture, in the Cabotville area, where Southworth had previously owned a drug store, during the summer of 1840 and by September, they had established a partnership and opened a portrait studio in that town. Shortly afterwards, Southworth wrote to his sister, Nancy, extolling the daguerreotype process and commenting about the business. In that letter, he mentioned an image that he sent to her saying that it was the largest size portrait that they made at the studio. He stated that "on a fair day it requires three minutes sitting" and further, that there was another apparatus that would shorten the time to 30 seconds.

The partners were experimenting with a Wolcott & Johnson style camera that didn't require a lens, but used a circular opening at one end where the light entered. The image “traveled” inside the wooden box to the back where it was received on a concave mirror (a speculum) that focused the light rays and reflected them back onto a sensitized plate. The men constructed a larger camera while they were operating in Cabotville that weighed 55 pounds.

Shortly afterwards, on November 29, 1840, Southworth wrote again to Nancy and told her that he, Pennell and “two first rate mechanics” would leave Cabotville soon to open studios in Boston and Lowell MA.

In another missive dated April 22, 1841, he tells Nancy that he is in Boston preparing to move the studio. The partners were still in Cabotville and will remain until “I get fitted up here”.

It is uncertain when Southworth changed cameras and began using a traditional lens, but he mentions that with the improvements in the apparatus and the addition of bromine as an accelerator, the exposure time was reduced to one minute in the best light of the day. He also was an early advocate of electroplating the plates (adding more silver to the daguerreotype which, in theory, improved the polishing phase of the plate preparation).

This very early, ninth plate daguerreotype, approximately 2 x 2 7/16ths inches, is a technical triumph from this period of the daguerreian era. Southworth told Nancy in his letter written in September 1840 that he and Mr. Pennell “have very far surpassed anybody in this country, and probably the world, in making miniatures (daguerreotypes)”. The overwhelming fact that this magnificent artifact has survived in such immaculate condition lends credibility to the thought that it is the daguerreotype that Southworth sent to his sister so that she could judge the fledgling firm's success by viewing a portrait of her own brother. The masterpiece was actually purchased in West Fairlee about 20 years ago from a local dealer. It was sold to a collector, who at the time was also enamored like myself with the very earliest experimental American portraits. I acquired this plate and several other outstanding examples from him in 2000.

The ungilded, cool toned piece has remnants of light blue tape adhered to the copper on the reverse. (It is helpful to date this plate knowing that it wasn't double-silvered. Southworth didn’t begin that additional facet in plate preparation until about 1844). Over the blue seal, a thin beige paper tape had been added. The surface is separated from the glass by a relatively thick, hand cut and cleverly decorated brass mat. Upon breaking the old seals, I had an opportunity to closely examine the heavy, unmarked plate. The four corners were square and the sides were perfectly flat. I suspect that the piece was cut from a larger plate stock. There is evidence that the plate holder did indeed leave a very narrow, dark border around the perimeter of the piece. This was one indication that a Wolcott & Johnson camera had been used.

The heavy buff strokes, both horizontal and circular, and shellac or varnish that cover the surface are common qualities of very early plates. There is heavy patina inside the mat. The depth, contrast and tonality are all remarkable for a portrait executed circa 1840! Southworth and Pennell certainly did produce a remarkable achievement in less than one year after being instructed by Professor Morse!

The green leather case is plain except for rectangular lines near the outer edges. The unadorned, thin green silk pad inside is opposite the daguerreotype, which is surrounded by a bright green velvet liner. The entire physical package suggests that the plate was made in 1840. My son Casey has made a new green professional leather hinge repair to unite the case halves.

The stunning, tightly composed bust of Southworth was created in a classic, painterly style, also seen in the marble busts of Greek and Roman antiquities. It is a testimony to Southworth’s supreme concentration and ability to remain motionless (as well as the sharpness the speculum camera provided) that the portrait is remarkably crisp. We know from his own letters that the exposure time for his likeness was at least three minutes. The illumination was typical of the early experimental efforts, either being directly reflected onto the sitter while he posed indoors or taken outside in direct sunlight. In this instance, the light was directed at Southworth from slightly higher than eye level. The features of his extremely distinctive face are remarkably well defined. His choice of a white shirt with a small collar caressing his cheeks and held in place by a large, hand-knotted bow tie, are what all fashionable gentlemen of 1840 were wearing. The plain dark jacket, with medium lapels was probably in vogue one or two years earlier.

Because of the physical evidence, the style of the daguerreotype and Southworth's own letters, I believe that this portrait was taken at Southworth and Pennell's studio in Cabotville, MA, in the late summer of 1840, and sent to Nancy in Vermont. It has been mentioned numerous times that the firm of Southworth & Hawes was the most innovative daguerreian gallery in America. I would certainly concur. Albert Sands Southworth provided the initial expertise and experience that propelled the partners so successfully forward. His portrait was extraordinary for the date. It is the earliest known extant daguerreotype of Southworth. Not only is the daguerreotype of great importance in the history of photography, it also must be considered in the context of overall significance as a rare and unique object.

Brian Wallace and Grant Romer selected this portrait as the initial catalogue entry in their most magnificent and definitive tome, Young America The Daguerreotypes of Southworth & Hawes! Southworth was reproduced on Page 25 as Figure 1 Catalogue No. 1. The daguerreotype is seen again on page 262 with the notes listed on page 263.

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