by Kay

I think it’s always a thrill to find objects you’ve only read about – to actually be able to look at them close up. This is what is happening as I continue to explore a wonderful box of donated photographs. In my previous article, I talked about the ambrotypes which were part of the donation. This time I am going to talk about the grand-daddy of photographs, the daguerreotype. Of course there aren’t any identifying marks or accompanying papers which would tell us who the man is in our daguerreotype. The best we can do is to figure out an approximate date of the photograph.

When trying to date old photographs it is sometimes important to know the history behind that particular method of photography. So, here’s a quick history of the daguerreotype. The daguerreotype is one of the first widely used methods of photography. It is named after the man who perfected it in 1839: Louis-Jacques-Mande’ Daguerre. One of the reasons for its popularity was that upon it being presented to the French government the process was declared “free to the world.” There were of course other people involved in the discovery of the process and a man in England by the name of William Henry Fox Talbot who had invented the calotype process. Talbot prevented his invention from mass production by copyrighting it. In later years his invention would be the prototype for modern film – but that’s another story. Anyway, even though the process for the daguerreotype had been around for a while, most historians and camera buffs point to the date of 1839 as the beginning of daguerreotypes. The daguerreotype retained its popularity from the late 1850s to the early 1860s, when cheaper methods such as the tin-type came along. How do you know when you have a daguerreotype? Simple – they are shiny, very shiny. In fact, a lot of the time you have to do some angling and tilting of the photograph to see the image. A daguerreotype “plate” is made with a highly polished silver-coated copper plate. Sometimes there is an almost 3-D feel about an image created using the daguerreotype process. If you have trouble distinguishing between an ambrotype, tin-type and daguerreotype remember, the daguerreotype is the only one which has a mirror-like quality about it. 

caseOnce again when we try to establish an image date, we must consider the entire artifact, not just the image itself. Let’s start with the case our image is housed in. Early photography was a busy time. There were tons of accessories which cropped up and most of those accessories had patents, so there are actual dates which can be used as a starting point. I’m going to throw out two dates – 1856 and 1859. Just what about these dates are going to help me arrive at my conclusion? Well, I’ll tell you. In 1856 a patent was approved for hidden metal hinges in photography cases. Then in 1859 a process for molded thermoplastic Union cases was patented. I bet you thought plastic was a modern invention. Wrong. Anyway, the photographic case in our collection does not have the hinges nor is it made out of the thermoplastic. This means our case is older than 1856. Our case was made first by making a wooden box, then gluing really thin embossed leather to it. The leather was probably from a sheep. The hinging mechanism on our case is made by gluing strips of heavier leather to the outside and inside of the case – this hinge piece is called an “inside-outside back”.  While the embossing on our case may appear pretty elaborate, it is nothing compared to later cases. There is also a tiny little hook and eye-like fastening used to shut the case. Sometimes cases had two of these little fastenings.

When the case is opened, the one side is covered with padded embossed red velvet. Red was the most popular color, but not the only one used.  The use of embossed velvet became popular after 1840. On the other side of the case is the photograph. In our case there is the daguerreotype, then the matte, the cover glass, preserver, and a frame of velvet covered cardboard. All of this, along with some glue, created quite a tight fit. By the way, a preserver is a thin pliable sheet of brass. The early ones were embossed but not as ornate as later ones. The preserver was a standard way of sealing the daguerreotype in the United States from around 1847 on. 

Even with all of the velvet, embossed brass and leather, our case would be considered simple, which is another reason for placing the date of the case as an early one. Here’s the tricky part – I’m going to date the case between 1848-1855; but does that mean the photograph is from the same time period? Not necessarily. People in the 1800s did the same thing as 21st century people, they switched frames. You have a picture frame you like, you use it for different photographs. However, after closely examining our case and photo, I strongly suspect that this particular photo is in its original case.  The fit is still tight and doesn’t appear to have been disturbed.

Something else which you may run across, occasionally: photographers embedded their signatures in the embossed covers of the cases, in tricky little spots. Sometimes they would write their names backward and blend it in with the foliage of the design. I pulled out my handy dandy magnifying glass but alas could not find any tricksy photographer signature. Another photographer trick was to place some kind of identification behind the photo. Of course, the only way to see if there is something there is to take the artifact apart – we will not be doing that.

manMaybe we can find more clues in the photograph of the man. Before I get started on my clues I will say this, while the photograph is a pretty nice image, the contrast between light and dark is limited. It would be nice to have an image in which I could see every minute detail, but alas, ‘twas not to be. Here is what I have. I have a frowny-faced man with fiery, light-colored eyes and longish hair. The fiery eyes was my interpretation of this stern man. In fact, I found him to be really quite fascinating and suspect he might have been quite dynamic. If only we knew who he was. Anyway, let’s look at his hair. He has rather long hair, which was still popular in the 1850s. He also has what appears to be sideburns, but not what I would call mutton-chops (think Chester A. Arthur). Mutton-chops became more popular in the 1860s onward. He may have a light dusting of whiskers, or that might be an imperfection caused by polishing the daguerreotype.  I’m always a little leery of using hairstyles for exact dating; you just never know what someone will do to their hair. Another place to look for clues in photographs is the clothing. Well, in this particular photograph we have a slight problem. As I mentioned before, the black and white contrast in this photograph is a little off. Because of that I cannot make out the details of his coat. I cannot tell what the buttons look like or what kind of lapels his jacket has. The only thing I have to work with is his shirt, collar, and cravat (tie).  I will focus on the collar and cravat. The collar is a stand up collar with a wide gap, which was popular in the late 1840s. The cravat appears to be a wrap-around and tied in the front, but not as intricate as the cravats of the early 1800s.  In the later 1850s, the collars begin to be turned down – at least Prince Albert’s were turned down.  I can also discern that he is holding a book in his hands, however I haven’t a clue as to what kind of book it is or whether it means anything or maybe it’s just a photographer’s prop.

After putting all my clues together, the fact that this is a daguerreotype (after 1839), the early leather case combined with the high collar and cravat which he is wearing indicates to me this photograph was probably taken sometime between 1848 and 1855. Not very exact, but that’s about as close as I can come. One more thing - I learned an awful lot about early photographic cases.

Sources used:
http://www.phototree.com/
https://maureentaylor.com/
https://www.si.edu/ (Smithsonian)
https://www.vam.ac.uk/ (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Floyd and Marion Rinhart. American Miniature Case Art, published 1969
Diane VanSkiver Gagel. Windows on the Past, published 2000
William E. Leyshon. Photographs from the 19th Century, 2001
Bates and Isabel Barrett Lowry. The Silver Canvas, Daguerreotype Masterpieces from the J. Paul Getty Museum, 1998
Paul K. Berg. Nineteenth Century Photographic Cases and Wall Frames, 2003