Dating American Daguerreotypes, 1839-1842 - by Dennis A. Waters
EVEN AFTER CLOSELY inspecting ten thousand naked daguerreotype plates, sometimes I still don't know conclusively when an American portrait was made or at what time a daguerreian ventured away from the familiar comforts of his studio to shoot a landscape or make an architectural view. Naturally, the mats and cases containing daguerreotypes provide plenty of information and clues to help date the pieces. Unfortunately, both items are easily substituted and some of the changes made are purposefully deceptive.
Never judge the period of an image (or its relative value) simply by casual observation. Let me say strongly, right now, that I don't want the majority of you folks who will read this to start prying every daguerreotype you find out of the case and taking apart the glass, mat and plate. That would be sheer madness and might severely damage the piece. If you aren't prepared to reglass and archivally reseal the entire package, then please don't disassemble it. Please remember that all the physical information is derived from my direct observations, and while there are definitely some anomalies, this information is usually quite correct.
By my own definition, very early daguerreotypes date from 1839 to the end of 1842. During this period, the processes required to attain any results were widely disseminated and discussed. However, many refinements of the art were closely guarded secrets, especially after the artists and scientists had accomplished their experiments in producing portraits. Once the entrepreneurs (who successfully operated the first commercial daguerreian studios) began charging a fee for each faint, steely gray apparition on the mirrored surfaces, the competition began in earnest.
Americans were initially suspicious about the accounts of the daguerreotype that reached their shores on the steamship "Great Western", September 10, 1839. However, Samuel F. B. Morse, a highly respected artist, scientist and man of letters, residing in New York City, was already a leading proponent of the daguerreotype method, having learned the secrets from Daguerre during his visit to Paris in the spring of 1839. Many other highly intelligent men quickly were attracted to the mysteries of the daguerreotype after they had witnessed the initial attempts created by their counterparts. Within weeks, several loosely associated consortiums were assembled in different East Coast cities. Lenses were ground, chemical experiments were conducted, and wooden boxes (the first crude cameras) that supported a brass tube containing different arrangements of glass, a focusing mirror and plate holder quickly appeared. One team, John Johnson and Alexander Wolcott, actually made their images using a small box camera without a lens! A speculum inside reflected a likeness of the subject onto a tiny plate.
An exhaustive explanation of the intricacies and techniques developed by the experimenters, along with their triumphs and endless failures, would fill the pages of a long, comprehensive book. To fully understand the complexities of every extant example of daguerreotypy is a building process. Each new plate reveals important information that, like the original efforts, could move knowledge ahead or completely confuse the examiner and misdirect a conclusion. A "leap of faith" isn't required to recognize very early pieces, but dating them is akin to swimming in an ocean of red herrings searching for the one, true fish!
In this paper I will explain how to explore daguerreotypes, without removing them from the cases, to arrive at a fairly precise dating system. Many scans containing pertinent information will accompany the article. Let me identify the periods of daguerreotypy within the approximately twenty year life span of the art. The experimental era, when at first, just getting a cold gray shadow on the roughly buffed, silvered surface, was considered an outstanding event, begins in 1839 and continues through 1842. There is definitely an overlap into 1843, but for practical purposes, we will designate the "age of enlightenment", when operators learned how to perfect their craft to the highest degree and began to investigate every artistic and operational technique possible, from 1843-1848. During this time, daguerreotypists delivered many of the greatest masterpieces. By 1849, the marketplace began to greatly expand. Prices for cameras and supplies were lower, the general public demanded more practitioners, and many men, and a few woman, eagerly opened rooms. These second- and third-rate establishments advertised cutthroat prices. The great majority of clients, and those people devoid of artistic good taste, eagerly accepted the lesser quality and cheaper costs. So 1849-1855 heralded the competitive era of daguerreotypes (not only from less sophisticated shooters, but also the invention of the glass plate negative to paper print, the ambrotype and later, in 1856, the tintype). Make no mistake, the top echelon of proprietors continued to charm and amaze their clients with stunning works of daguerreian art throughout the 1850s, but from 1856 to the beginning of the Civil War, the daguerreian decline was evident. Most of the major shooters offered several other "types" of photography, while the lesser operators followed suit. One outstanding exception was Rufus Anson, who continued to make daguerreotypes into the mid-1860s from his Broadway studio in New York City. To a smaller degree, Josiah Hawes, now the sole proprietor of the once majestic firm of Southworth & Hawes, still produced daguerreotypes in the 1860s.
Back to the beginning. As I mentioned, daguerreotypes made from 1839 to the end of 1841 universally have a colder blue/gray tone than images produced about 1843. Go ahead, ask me what happened to 1842! Well, the makers were investigating the potential use of gold chloride, since it gave the image a warmer tone and created a more stable chemical environment, while protecting the silvered surface better. They heated the plate from beneath with a spirit lamp and poured the liquid on the surface. This "final" technique spread rapidly and was adopted as a standard procedure.
One important thought: when plates were doubly sensitized with iodine and bromine, at the beginning of 1840 (by very astute operators), there is conjecture the cold tones were "chemically softened", making some portraits less cold toned. Another factor that isn't completely understood, is how each daguerreian's varnish or shellac contributed to the visual results of the picture. They used different ingredients before gold chloride became the industry's standard in 1842, and I believe that is a primary reason why many of these daguerreotypes have such varied miens today.
I was aware of the information in that article when I nervously removed the package (a thick piece of glass covering a rectangular, gold-painted paper mat that framed the heavy plate). It had originally been sealed together with thin, nearly transparent tape. The scattered remnants were in the bottom of the case. The corners of the plate were cut square and the sides were absolutely flat, with a faint bevel on the top and bottom edges. While I inspected the plate I noticed a highly visible crescent of bare copper (where the silver had disappeared) just above the unknown sitter's forehead. My concern, from physical experience in examining many naked plates, was that the silver would further lift from the copper if any disturbance touched the surface. After completing my visual tour, I had a new piece of glass cut and carefully resealed the package using Filmoplast P90, an archival tape.
Later, the researcher visited my studio, and we had an interesting discussion about the man in profile. I asked why the daguerreotype couldn't have been made in the fall of 1839. Because of her previous research examining daguerreotypes produced by Robert Cornelius she said when her report was written about my portrait, she hadn't considered that anyone else was so advanced during that period. Now she speculated the profile was probably taken between October and December 1839.
Further study reveals he has a cold-toned look, a blue/gray color and is difficult to examine at most viewing angles. The surface has a broad band of nearly rectangular tarnish, various spots and dots caused by corrosion from the glass and heavy horizontal buff strokes (created during the crucial step when the plate was polished). The scrapes in the lower right corner were probably done later when someone attempted to wipe off the tarnish and mercifully stopped before destroying the image. When the plate is viewed horizontally at eye level, in raking light, it is possible to notice slight waves in the surface made when imperfect rollers rolled the two clad metals. Also, at less of an angle, a layer of shellac, which was usually applied as a final step to protect the surface, is visible.
Why was the man daguerreotyped in profile? One knowledgeable person thought he might have had a deformity on his face. More plausible though is the obvious fact, that in late 1839 all the experimenters were having difficulty successfully exposing a plate in much less than ten minutes even in direct sunlight! The sitter couldn't have kept his eyes open the entire time; tears would have streamed down his flaccid cheeks. I believe the maker turned him in profile for his own comfort and instructed him to close his eyes if necessary. Even with his head partially immobilized by an iron restraint, normal respiration caused movement during the long exposure. Also remember, the lenses were crudely constructed. Focusing them was a challenge and depth of field was extremely shallow.
The source of the illumination was either direct sunlight outdoors or outdoor light reflected onto the gentleman's face by two mirrors, while he was seated inside. It is difficult to ascertain if the apparent shadows at the tip of his nose and along the length of his face are actually shadows or merely ghosts from his involuntary movement. If they are shadows, then the man's face was nearly touching the neutral colored background.
The framed fellow's handsome face is perfectly delineated, but the most remarkable feature is his dark, penetrating eyes, strongly directed down and away from the camera's lens. The illumination is so spectacular that his facial features are rendered as three dimensional. As I would expect, the depth of field is quite shallow, but the focus is extremely sharp around his nose and intense eyes. He remained motionless for the long exposure. This very heavy plate, 3 1/8 by 3 15/16 inches, is smaller than a conventional quarter plate, which is 31/4 by 41/4 inches (Figure 2a). The corners are square and the sides are flat. On the reverse, strongly stamped is HEDIARD on the long edge, upper left. I can't recall ever seeing a hallmark (more about them later) imprinted in the copper. It is the most unique hallmarked plate from the very early era that I own. The surface of the plate is crudely buffed, and there are deep gouges across his chest. They were created when the plate was made, since the varnish or shellac coating that was applied to preserve the surface actually flowed into the crevices. I have read that the French immediately began shipping plates to the United States in the fall of 1839, and I suspect that this marvelous artifact was in one of the first allotments.
My plate has been mishandled and there are several fingerprints on the surface along with vertical scratches on the top. The image is weak, has a cold blue/gray color and is slightly dark. While I can't pronounce the plate a very early, experimental effort by Cornelius with certainty, my thought process is continuing in that direction. The size is in between his own self-portrait, made in October or November of 1839, according to several accounts and the more standard, sixth-plate size that he was producing about May of 1840. He and Dr. Paul Beck Goddard opened their studio at the corner of South Eighth Street. and Lodge Alley in Philadelphia at that time. Goddard was instrumental in aiding Cornelius, using his knowledge of chemistry to accelerate the sensitivity of the plates by coating them with both iodine and bromine. Regardless of the maker, this plate is a stunning achievement from the infancy of daguerreotypy.
The two earliest commercially produced American plates in my collection have the hallmarks of Joseph Corduan (CORDUAN & Co) and William H. Butler (WM. H. BUTLER N-YORK) stamped on the surface of the silver. Both men were active in the autumn of 1839. A third very early hallmark is SCOVILLS. While it isn't seen until late 1840, the firm had hired Butler in the winter of 1839, "to roll a better clad plate".
The youngster in Butler's masterpiece appears to be singly sensitized (fumed only with iodine), definitely ungilded and never cleaned. Since her head bobbed freely during the long exposure, it is difficult to determine the exact type of illumination, but it is critical to remember that daguerreotypists required the brightest amount of light that a sitter could endure (combined with the quality of the lens and sensitivity of the plate to the light) to capture even a ghostly shadow on the polished surface.
One stunning feature of this plate is the thickness of the silver layer on the copper. It can easily be seen with the naked eye when an edge is examined. In fact, there is correspondence from Lamson Scovill to his brother and partner, William Scovill, written December 31, 1839, lamenting the fact that their attempts at producing adequate plates for Morse, Butler and others has been unsuccessful. Lamson also discusses the silver/copper ratios, commonly one part to thirty-nine parts, and wondering (along with the other inventors) if more silver might be the answer. I think Butler was certainly of that mind when he clad this particular plate.
The child's pose is also of great interest. She is seated in a small wooden chair, partially visible under her arm, which is resting on a cloth-covered table. Her fingers are marvelously detailed, showing her nails and knuckles clearly. The pattern on the sleeve of her dress, the cloth and the books are also sharp (for 1840). One obvious and very important difference in this plate and the three previous ones is that while the sides are flat, the corners are narrowly clipped at roughly 45Â° angles. Many portraits from the very early epoch have square corners, but with great rapidity, when firms began commercially mass manufacturing plates, the corners were clipped at the factory. The reason is extremely simple. During the buffing process, the buffing paddle, which was covered with soft leather or cotton velvet, would catch on the sharp corners.
Those scratches across his forehead and other divots on the surface, plus the discoloration, suggest the likeness was cleaned. The gold paper mats were constructed by the same person, and the leather cases are nearly identical. They both are hinged at the top, have the same markings on the cover and matching plain black velvet pads. The leather on the man's case is slightly darker. One interesting variance in the plates might indicate that the man's image was made prior to the child's. The corners of his plate are perfectly square. I wonder how many times the hide on the buff stick ripped before the experimenter decided to clip the corners?
A third daguerreotype with WM. H. BUTLER stamped upside-down (not illustrated) shows a man in a tighter, more traditional bust portrait, glaring straight ahead into the "blast lighting". The sixth-plate was trimmed on both sides and is a completely different style leather case. No hint of New York is visible. This piece might actually be slightly earlier than the previous two. I do remember that the original glass was tinted blue.
Usually these first subjects were shot close up in a classic, straight forward, bust pose. Their shoulders were generally distorted (due to the crudeness of the optics). As we have just seen, some daguerreians placed their cameras further back, causing arms and especially fingers, when they are visible, to also become elongated. Daguerreotypists used simple props, including tables, chairs and drapery, along with accessories like table cloths and books. By 1842, tremendous technical and artistic expansion was already apparent in the fledgling industry.
In the early spring of 1840, the two men returned to Springfield, Massachusetts, with at least one daguerreotype (taken of city hall in New York City) 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, Massachusetts. 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 New York City. On April 16, a Thursday, the article noted the men had taken a "pleasing view" of part of Chestnut Street in Springfield. Southworth and Pennell placed an advertisement in another newspaper on the 18th announcing 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 probably 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 mentions an image that he sent to her (possibly this daguerreotype) saying it was the largest size portrait that they made at the studio. He stated, "On a fair day it requires three minutes sitting" and further, that there was another apparatus that would shorten the time to thirty seconds.
Shortly afterwards, on Nov. 29, 1840, Southworth wrote again to Nancy and told her he, Pennell and "two first rate mechanics" would leave Cabotville soon to open a studio in Boston and Lowell. In another communiquÃ©, April 22, 1841, he tells Nancy 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 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 their polish).
The very early, ninth-plate daguerreotype, approximately 2 by 21/2 inches, is a technical triumph from this period of the daguerreian era. Southworth told Nancy in his September 1840 letter 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 an image that Southworth sent to his sister so she could judge the fledgling firm's success by viewing a portrait of her own brother.
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 resilvered.) Over that, a thin beige paper tape has 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 are square and the sides are perfectly flat. I suspect 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.
The heavy buff strokes and shellac or varnish that cover the surface are common qualities of very early plates. Since there is heavy patina inside the mat and remarkable depth, contrast and tonality, I would suggest the plate was never cleaned. Southworth and Pennell certainly did accomplish a remarkable achievement in very short order.
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.
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 his strength and supreme concentration (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, being directly reflected onto the sitter. In this instance, it seems to have been 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 is what all fashionable gentlemen of 1840 were wearing. The plain dark jacket with medium lapels was probably in vogue one or two years earlier.
Whipple not only had exceptional technical skills and fine equipment in 1840-41, but his sense of artistic arrangement was superb. Most operators were still struggling to obtain an image on the plate. Whipple first exhibited his portraiture in September 1841 at the Third Exhibition of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association at Quincy Hall, Boston. Because of the inscription, I wonder if this heavy plate, with no hallmark, square corners and four nicely beveled sides, was one of his illustrations in the display.
Continuing into the ad Darling puffed, "Miniatures taken in a style unequaled, at from $3 to $5" (a hefty piece of change in 1841). Further along comes the coup de grace, "Beware of Imposition. As several instances have occurred where Miniatures, taken at Professor Darling's Studio, have been exhibited as the productions of others, all will be marked 'Daguerreotype Studio'".
I have secretly laughed at this portrait and Darling's conviction that he was producing such magnificent plates in the summer of 1841. In fairness I must admit the surface is badly tarnished, and if Darling attempted to gild it with gold chloride, it has badly deteriorated with time. Nevertheless, the good professor was still using directly reflected sunlight, unimaginatively blasting the features of his subject. Check out those reflected pinpoints of light in the boy's eyes. The low camera angle adds prominence to the sitter but an inferior lens terribly lengthens his bent fingers and causes the shape of his head to be disproportionate with his massive chest.
I will make a plea at this juncture to any serious photographic researcher. If you have unlimited time, formulate a comprehensive survey of the relationships of the daguerreotypists, scientists, instrument makers and daguerreian suppliers from the very early period. I think that many "loose threads of knowledge" would quickly become tightly woven. By using materials already compiled by Floyd and Marion Rinhart in their magnificent book The American Daguerreotype and the bountiful information in John Craig's Daguerreian Registry, along with other published photo-historical facts, I believe astounding associations will quickly become evident. Most experimenters chose medium to dark gray, plain backgrounds. Some makers began to drape the hanging cloths with folds, which added "depth" to the image. Others used fabric on one side of the sitter that mimicked subjects seen in fine oil paintings or miniatures on ivory (which daguerreotypes quickly replaced as the "portrait of choice"). The most innovative backdrops were hand-painted scenes, usually very idyllic and sometimes with an outrageous perspective in relationship to the sitter. Jeremiah Gurney hung a marvelous view of the Hudson River behind young Edward Carrington Jr., circa 1842. I owned the remarkable plate until it was purchased by The Getty Museum to complement a second portrait taken on the same day that was in their collection. In my likeness, there was nothing to indicate that Gurney was responsible, but The Getty image had the same painting and a vase sitting upon a half column. Along the bottom edge of the vase was GURNEY NY. It was printed neatly backwards, so it would read correctly since a large percentage of all daguerreian portraits were laterally reversed. For a glimpse of both images, please see plates 7 & 8, in The Silver Canvas by Bates and Isabel Lowry. The marvelous book presents daguerreian masterworks from The Getty Museum's collection and enlightening text by the authors.
In these early images, the gold, rectangular paper mats were the most common device used to separate the plate from the glass. The glass has been colorless in ninety-nine percent of the approximately two hundred original examples that I have carefully examined from the experimental era. Three times I have seen a medium blue shade, once a deep green and twice an amber color. Other gold gilded paper mat shapes include a beautifully cut octagonal, circa 1839-40, surrounding the balding man discussed earlier in the article (fig. 4), and very wide ovals (in both paper and brass). Exquisite ornamental and plain brass rectangular mats were not uncommon. Of course, since there wasn't any standardization (portraits were made from about one inch square to whole-plate size, which is 61/2 by 81/2 inches) each experimenter would choose his own mat design.When John Plumbe was assigned a patent for coloring daguerreotypes, he quickly designed an oval brass mat pressed with an acorn and oak leaf theme. At the bottom he embossed Plumbe's Patent Oct. 22, 1842.
Ninth-, sixth- and quarter-plates are most frequently seen (in portraits through 1842), and within those sizes there are variable tolerances. The maker would constantly be redesigning his camera system to advance the end results, and he wasn't overly concerned with absolute proportions. Leather cases were produced in two basic designs: hinged on the left side (which became the standard after 1843) and hinged at the top. I might have seen one daguerreotype from 1844 that opened from the bottom, but it was definitely an abnormality. The earliest wood and leather cases were exquisitely crafted in many different colors of Moroccan leather. The best examples had two brass eyelets and latches. The embossed motifs were uniformly simple, but varied widely. On the cover you will probably see a large, vacant center, surrounded by one or more sets of rectangular boxes. Many examples have a rosette or other fancy impressions in the four corners and sometimes they are even doubled. The bottom might be plain, a copy of the cover or completely different. Simplicity was usually the main theme. The classical grecian urn filled with flowers (I have over ten variants), a circle motif and several other simple themes began to appear in 1842. I will speak more directly about these cases in the second installment of this article.
Upon opening one of the first cases, the viewer would be instructed by the proprietor how to properly hold the image in direct light and turn it until the misty gray apparition became a person. Opposite the portrait, inside the cover, a thin black, brown or purple plain velvet pad might be seen. But in other examples, a bright, unadorned silk pad could be visible. The best cushions are attractive, padded silks in green or chocolate brown that have been embellished with a repetitive pattern of sewn leaves. They absolutely shimmer!
In my experience, the daguerreian partnership of Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Hawes was the only American firm that continued to consistently use the simple "older style" leather cases throughout the 1840s. Their choices of mat styles were usually unadorned, and they might have begun the trend about 1844, to over mat and give the client a larger sized package consisting of the mat, glass and case for a normal sixththrough whole-plate daguerreotype. My theory is they were providing a client "more bang for their buck"! Not only was the pair extremely creative in the operating room, but they were definitely accomplished marketers, producing many "cutting-edge" technical and innovative delights during the enormous popularity of the daguerreotype.
Before beginning the more "technical" aspects of researching the origins of very early plates, let me say that knowing about mid-nineteenth century clothing can be extremely helpful and also very confusing. While several authors have attempted to date photographs through fashions and have been successful, no one has correctly been able to apply a formula for unraveling the mysteries of apparel in the 1840s. Don't worry, I won't even attempt to make that effort now, but previously, most fashion experts treated the first ten years of daguerreotypy as "early photographs" without the benefit of ever having studied the art. They were at the mercy of collectors who had a vague idea of dating the silvered plates. By 1850, the general public was more conventional and conscious of their appearances. Naturally, as a whole, people appear better dressed in daguerreotypes made after 1850.
Thus far, without even removing a daguerreotype from its case, I have given many visual aids to date each image. Now, for you true connoisseurs who promise to follow my instructions as you remove a plate from the case, let's proceed with caution. Remember, if you are fortunate to find a very early daguerreotype, you are holding the history of photography in your hands, and you don't want to damage it.
I prefer to place any daguerreotype on a flat table top, away from the edge, and use a thin blade from my Swiss Army knife to gently pry up the glass, mat and plate as one complete unit. If I notice the seal (which many times is very thin and porous) has been removed or decayed, and the three components are separating, then I stop and rethink what I am doing. First, if I'm not extremely careful, I could scratch the surface of the plate with the mat, especially if it is brass. Don't relax yet, because paper can make nasty marks also. Since I have a definite "need to know more" attitude, I find a way to remove the daguerreotype even if it is wedged in the case. Please don't sacrifice the artifact if the removal is a struggle. Email or call me, and maybe I can answer your questions. Of course, a JPEG scan sent as an attachment would be really helpful. Folks, I must be quite candid when I tell you I include this paragraph against the wishes of my daughter Erin, who has edited and given wonderful advice for this paper. Her hand-written note in the margin says, "I'm not sure if this is a good idea ... " One other collector of very early daguerreotypes was even more emphatic. He said, "I hope you have some cautions in that article. I would hate to see such an important part of history ruined because someone didn't know what they were doing!"
With great care, I continue to increase the angle of the three parts until I can securely grasp them with my thumb and finger. Once the daguerreotype is removed I make absolutely certain the mat isn't rotated. It is imperative to position the mat exactly as it was when you reglass and reseal the three components. If the seals are intact, leave them alone. Don't be surprised if the entire back is covered with paper. If the daguerreotype has the original paper or gut seals, there should be an impression, outline or staining on the bottom paper of the case (if it is period to the image) that resembles those seals. If the copper has corroded or is discolored the paper liner might have matching traces of the decay. The plate should fit snugly into the compartment. You can determine a wealth of information by careful observation of the copper side of the plate. (Very few examples through 1842 have resilvered backs, but more about that process later.) Carefully feel along the sides of the plate, and if they are all flat, that is a good indicator of a primary piece. Next inspect the corners. At first, many of the experimental plates were cut from larger portions and most had relatively square edges. As a general rule, if the corners of a plate are clipped at a very shallow angle, then the portrait was probably made no earlier than 1842. Additionally, once two sides are bent back towards the copper, a date of 1843 or later is appropriate. The crimped sides occurred as more sophisticated clamps were devised to secure plates during the very important buffing process. The corners were altered to lessen the chance of tearing the fabric of a buffing device. Both minor changes represent further progress during experimentation to produce better products.
The final decision you must make is, "to break or not to break" the seals. If the glass is corroded, scratched and weeping, thus hiding the beauty of the image and possibly a threat to contaminating the surface, then I feel it should be replaced. I would be happy to perform the necessary work for a small fee, so don't hesitate to contact me.
As I diligently search for very early daguerreotypes to purchase, I also am very cognizant of examples that I have seen in various public and private collections. Every one tells an enlightening tale, but the entire saga isn't completely revealed (and then only grudgingly) until the plate has been carefully examined without the glass and paper or brass mat. I am constantly amazed and continually pleased to find another previously unknown portrait. A wealth of information can also be contained in letters and documents written during the era. My most important object is an extraordinary one-page document, written by Samuel Morse in December 1841 to his former pupil, J. M. Edwards, while he had a studio in Richmond, Virginia. It is in response to an earlier letter written by Edwards and reads:
Dear Sir, Yours of the 12th inst. I have received and I am indeed gratified to know that you are meeting with success. I have not even attempted to take an impression with the Daguerreotype since you left. My other affairs have required all my attention and I have not had time for a thought on other subjects. As to 'Secrets from Paris by Special Express' I know nothing of them and therefore can impart nothing. It is possible there may be some preparation recently discovered which will effect the results of which you tell me, but as I have not been in the way of knowing it I have not heard anything. If I should learn anything I will impart it to you with pleasure. What you tell me in regard to the use of the zinco in mercurializing, was communicated to me by N. V. Young [my research shows that Young worked for Morse after August 1841] among the last things he did, I have not tried it and therefore cannot speak of it. My health is not good this winter. I wish you every success and believe me. Sincerely Y[our] friend & Sevt. [servant]. Saml F.B. Morse.
Written in the lower left margin is, "To J. M. Edwards, Esq." According to several sources, Edwards learned daguerreotypy from Morse, probably in early 1841, and left to form a partnership with T. N. Starr on Main Street in Richmond, Virginia, December 7, 1841. Since this letter was written on the 12th, five days after they opened for business, Edwards seemed very enthusiastic (witnessed by Morse's statement, "I am indeed gratified to learn that you are meeting with success"). Curiously, Edwards is listed both by the Rinharts and John Craig as working in Richmond only in 1841, before moving to Washington D.C., in 1842, where he was in partnership with Edward Anthony, 1842-43 and maybe into 1844, when he moved back to New York City and worked again with Anthony and Howard Chilton until 1845 or '46 when his career as a daguerreotypist apparently ended.
The other man mentioned in the letter, N. V. Young, didn't stay with Morse very long, moving to Baltimore and opening a studio, November 27, 1841, at 97 Baltimore Street, with a fellow named Parker. They apparently lasted only a couple months since they both disappear as daguerreians in 1842. Prior to the partnership of Young and Parker, a debonair fellow by the name of David wrote a long love letter (which I own) to Miss Olive R. Shaw, Bridgewater, Massachusetts, on June 20, 1841. After telling her his every thought and movement for several preceding weeks he finally penned, "I send you dearest with this, a Daguerreotype likeness of one of my acquaintances whom you may have seen; and considering it was taken in the short time of fifty seconds, it is tolerably good; perhaps you will see some resemblance if you hold it in the sun and get the right shade on it." Even by the summer of 1841, in Baltimore, the exposure time was still nearly one minute long. "David" was concerned that "Olive" might not know how to view the image and asks, "Did you ever see these kind of likenesses taken?" Commenting on his friend's portrait, David says, "But don't think the original looks always so savage as they have got him in the picture; he was sitting in the sun when it was taken (they are obliged to, in these drawings) which has given his brow a terrible scowl." After briefly explaining to Olive how the process worked, David continued, "I was passing one of these shops the other day with a party of young fellows; we dropped in out of sport, and in a few minutes had all our faces taken - They said this looked some like the original, so having a chance to send I had it put in frame, and have sent it to you."
Ross Kelbaugh, who lives near Baltimore, has published his research on Baltimore daguerreians and he felt quite certain that although other makers might have been active in June 1841, David and his friends most likely visited the rooms of Henry Fitz at the corner of Baltimore and Harrison streets For a glimpse of one of the most famous and earliest self-portraits in photography, please see figure 2, (earlier in this article) in the previously mentioned book about Robert Cornelius. It is a smashing shot of Fitz with his eyes closed. For an honest appreciation of the daguerreian era, original letters and documents are remarkable artifacts.
A previous owner, who had reportedly purchased the daguerreotype from Josephine Cobb, a longtime employee at the National Archives in Washington, DC, used Scotch tape to reseal the plate to the typical gold gilded, hand-cut rectangular paper mat. When I examined the reverse of the plate through the transparent tape I saw that it had flat sides and was cut irregularly, leaving fairly square corners. I immediately was disheartened because I thought (incorrectly as you will soon see) that there would not be any maker's hallmark. After carefully removing the tape, I nearly jumped for joy when I spied the very rare imprint 40 M.E. with F. N. underneath. Three other sixth-plates in my collection have the same imprint. One portrait is signed and dated (correctly I think) July 12, 1843, and two others are circa 1841-42. The hallmark immediately confirmed my thought process. The daguerreotype was taken late in 1841 or early 1842.
Because the surface has furrows instead of finely made buff strokes, a thick shellac (possibly augmented with a thin layer of gold chloride) sealing the silver and catastrophic "measles" imbedded in the silver layer, I strongly suspected the date before viewing the naked plate. I sent a scan to both my children, who have had a serious interest in daguerreotypes since grade school. Erin was very impressed by the overall quality and especially the use of this painting as a back drop at such an early date. Casey responded by asking, "Dad, how early is it? Aren't that kid's clothes from the 1830s?" That was another key component. The cut of the clothing was a typical "Sunday going to Church" outfit from 1840 or slightly earlier. The plain leather case, hinged at the top, has a very unusual purple silk pad. A repetitive raised pattern of twigs and leaves adorns the silk. I've never encountered this design before.
Coincidentally, J. M. Edwards (the author of the letter to Morse discussed earlier) and Edward Anthony, along with Victor Piard, were in Washington in 1842. Gabrielle Harrison operated John Plumbe's D.C. gallery from 1841 to 1844. It is possible that Philip Haas was also shooting by 1842 in the city. There are several other daguerreotypists credited with working there in 1841-42 that might be considered, if I could conclusively prove (first to myself ) that the image was actually made in Washington D.C. It will probably never be known, unless a second portrait with the same scenic panorama that is identified surfaces.
Mrs. Ireland has clenched her lips, probably attempting to remain still during the exposure (which, admirably, she was able to do) yet she has a pleasant expression. Her light-colored eyes gaze into the lens and are highlighted on the upper left side, since that's the direction of the main light source. One of her large hands is barely visible through the hazy tarnish at the bottom of the plate, near the edge of the gold gilded rectangular paper mat that is light blue on the underside. Her head is slightly tilted to the left and rests against young Philip's head. This is not an ordinary daguerreotype and herein lies the unbelievable quality. He has placed his left hand gently upon her shoulder and then rests his cheek and temple on it. His small body is turned in profile to the lens and his head is strongly diagonal to hers. The daguerreotypist has placed Philip's right hand upon grandma's arm, and the entire composition is outstanding.
The feeling between the two is electric; he admires her greatly and she certainly reciprocates! I am very impressed by the woman's self control and ability to remain stationary since the boy was solidly positioned on her shoulder but still moved slightly during the five to ten second duration while the lens was uncapped. Philip has fairly short, dark hair and striking facial features. He must have grown to become a very handsome man. His clothes were more fashionable in the 1830s rather than when this plate was made, since he wears a dark checkered shirt with a wide, turned down white collar and lighter colored checkered pants. Now I must describe the remarkable plate, finely buffed, unmarked, very heavy with flat sides and the tiniest of diagonal clips on the four corners. There is some light haze across the bottom, some minor spotting and tarnish inside the rectangle, but overall, the plate is in remarkable condition. The maker's sense of composition is unexcelled and his lens was certainly finely ground since the lack of real distortion and the overall sharpness is quite laudable. The broad range of contrast and tonality is special.
Upon close inspection, I believe that grandma's head shadow is cast upon the light, neutral gray drop. That would indicate she and Philip were placed within two feet of the material. The leather case, with double rectangular lines on the domed top and a small flower in each corner, has a plain reverse and broken spine. The thin velvet pad is black, and two small pieces of paper containing the information about the sitters are attached inside. This might prove to be a very important historical image if I can determine more about the sitters, the location of their home (apparently the piece was found by a picker in New Hampshire) and of course, the daguerreotypist, who had such wonderful skills during this very early period.
I have other daguerreotypes from 1842, with even better contrast, maybe a couple where the lighting is equal, but I have never seen another plate with all the vital components, including the subjects, so perfectly rendered in a very early likeness.
Once experimenters became daguerreotypists, and could consistently and successfully obtain images on their plates, the true spirit of the "inventive" period, certainly through 1841, began to fade and great photographers were born. Now it became a challenge to actually pose a person with some artistic flair, using a variety of props and even beautifully painted backdrops to enhance clients. Thoughtful and sometimes inspired illumination slowly gained momentum, and the greatest of the makers began to produce magnificent portraits. Constant repetition in honing their technical skills, coupled with improvements in the chemistry, cameras and buffing procedures began to guarantee success and financial rewards.
Edward White was a baron of daguerreian suppliers, constructing morocco cases and providing apparatus beginning in 1840. He began manufacturing plates in 1842, and many photographers considered them the finest available to the trade. For the first time, I have positive proof that he was also a very skilled maker by 1842, when he was located at the 175 Broadway address. He was also quite clever, having painted the banner backwards so that it would read correctly in the image. (Since light reflected off the subject, straight through the lens and onto the sensitized daguerreotype plate, all very early portraits are laterally reversed unless they are copies of the original.)
Although the heavy CORDUAN & Co. NY plate was very poorly sensitized, with much of the outer edges not taking the image, the picture itself is absolutely splendid. Brilliant Rembrandt-style illumination, with the main light source from the right, created great depth in the gentleman's bespectacled face, even though he moved during the long exposure. White's ability to capture rich blacks and crisp whites at this period is very impressive.
The surface is covered with heavy oxidation due to the very thin, porous gut seal he used. Superb reflected depth is quite apparent. I was sorely tempted to clean the plate, but I knew that a huge risk was involved, although the plate does appear to be lightly gilded. This outstanding example must predate White's entry into the plate production market, but since huge strides were made so rapidly during the experimental period, I will assign a date of late 1841, early 1842 to the piece. As positive proof of the last sentence, one only needs to examine the next two heavy, unmarked and handcut plates, produced within a year of the first one. (They actually might be prototypes for White's own plates.)
Like so many of the first people to pose for the camera, White's subject was obviously a successful, prominent person. Some were politicians, others highly regarded ministers, doctors, lawyers or merchants, et al. They all had one common thread among them: They were wealthy enough to afford a sixth-plate portrait! Or, they were friendly with the operator. Naturally, before White shot his gentleman, the experimenters might have used anyone able to withstand the torture of brilliant light, a cold iron clamp secured tightly to their head and the long tedious minutes of necessary motionlessness. Often their wives or children.
White's use of a Corduan & Co. commercially manufactured plate followed the dissolution of Corduan & Perkins in New York City. They began operations sometime in the fall of 1839, and I have actually seen a whole-plate street scene taken by Dr. Perkins (I am uncertain if there is a relationship between him and the New York City Perkins) in Newburyport, Massachusetts, with the CORDUAN AND PERKINS hallmark. I'm not certain when Corduan dropped the "Perkins".
I have made copious notes on hallmarks in the back of my copy of The American Daguerreotype by Floyd and Marion Rinhart, which is out of print, but still available in new condition. They printed a very comprehensive listing of hallmarks based on their own twenty-five years of research. I have nearly doubled their fifty entries.
At the end of 1841, along with the SCOVILLS, Edward White (E. WHITE MAKER N.Y. FINEST QUALITY A No 1) and an unknown firm, L.B.B. & Ce 40, produced the majority of the manufactured plates that contained a hallmark. All three firms began to systematically clip the corners of their plates in 1842. Both Scovills and White made lesser quality plates in 1842, SCOVILLS NÂ° 2 and E. WHITE * 40, respectively. Conversely, I have examined plates with L.B.B. & Ce 20 that indicate more silver was contained on the surface than in a standard "40" plate. Hallmarks of "30" with a closed quatrefoil inside a circle next to the number and a single mark, either "L" or "E" could be about 1842.
Most plates circa1839-42 are heavier than the later varieties. They might have various marks along the sides on the silvered surface (such as a dark, rectangular band where no image shows, because the plate holder masked the light from recording any semblance there). plate holders left many different patterns. Occasionally, the entire surface wasn't evenly sensitized, causing blank spots in the amalgam. Initially, only iodine was used as per Daguerre's formula, but then the American chemists realized they could increase the "speed" of the light's action by also sensitizing with bromine. Later, suppliers actually sold daguerreians prepackaged "quick" solutions.
Since many of the mats around these daguerreotypes were made of paper, the type of oxidation ranges from a hazy blue/white to deep blue (which is usually associated more with brass mats). Also, those varnishes that I mentioned earlier certainly caused the chemistry to age differently than a gold chloride coated surface. I like to examine the surface using a 100-watt incandescent bulb in a black swing lamp, rotating the plate perpendicular to my eyes. Many very early surfaces show uneven undulations caused by rollers used in the cladding process that weren't perfectly round. I have explored surfaces where there are actually pinholes in the silver layer, exposing bare copper. The green corrosion that normally would appear was inhibited by the shellac, which seeped into the crevices and protected the plate. Many examples have odd spots and dots that were part of the initial process and have aged in a very weird way.
Two potential traps in dating very early daguerreotypes should be mentioned before I conclude this section. There are likenesses from the mid-40s and even later that have the "look" of the earliest experiments, when in fact, they were produced by operators who just didn't succeed in the process. Then, in the opposite direction, many of the primeval portraits tarnished rapidly and before the decade ended, other daguerreotypists were "offering to renew" those older faces. So, when a person brought in a faded gray ghost, the man or woman immediately strengthened and restored it. Using fine salesmanship, they convinced the owner to frame it with a shiny new mat, the advanced brass protector and even a rich leather case of the latest design. I have half a dozen superb renderings that were changed five to seven years after they were created.
Never give up the hunt," is my motto. As Mark Johnson was sending me the final draft of this article, I was excitedly purchasing another very early quarter-plate daguerreotype and learning about a third quarter-plate example in a collection. Both of these plates were kept in identical tin frames (see my web site for a reproduction of the frame) that surrounds Figure 2, a quarter-plate daguerreotype in the article. I had always suspected Robert Cornelius was the maker, because of similarities between Figure 2 and the Cornelius self-portrait, now owned by The Library of Congress in Washington DC. I was nearly overwhelmed to learn that the quarter plate from the collection actually had the very famous yellow paper label advertising the Cornelius studio. It reads: "DAGUERREOTYPE MINIATURES, BY R. CORNELIUS, Eighth Street, above Chestnut, PHILADELPHIA."
I have studied a large number of Cornelius daguerreotypes in person and throughout the pages of the book about Robert Cornelius. After carefully reading the text for the umpteenth time I spied a small entry reproduced from the records of the "Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 1, no. 2 (March-April 1840)." It stated, in part, that Dr. Robert M. Patterson exhibited daguerreotypes of a large size (my emphasis) at the meeting of the Society on March 6, 1840. Patterson was quoted as saying, "Mr. Cornelius had succeeded in obtaining beautiful representations upon highly polished silver plate."
My research has indicated the yellow Cornelius label was not used after May of 1840. In every example that I have seen, whether I have held it in my hands or read about it, all the daguerreotypes have been sixth-plates except for the image in the collection mentioned above. My new acquisition is a fabulous portrait in rather rough condition showing a very balding man with long wild sideburns posed identically to the handsome youth in Figure 2. The man is lit from above on the left and has the same head placement and size. Similar harsh shadows are evident, which would indicate direct or reflected sunlight blasting the subject's face. The plate is stamped with a very primitive Corduan & Co hallmark. Three corners are square and the lower right has a teeny clip mark. The stock was cut from a heavy, larger piece. I suspect that Cornelius and Paul Beck Goddard collaborated to produce these three daguerreotypes after December 1839 and no later than May 1840.
Physical information and the proper interpretation are extremely important in attempting to make sense of the extant daguerreotypes from the very early experimental period. I would appreciate any examples from this era and further facts that you readers might share with me.