In the vault of the NHA Research Library, there are several boxes filled with small wood or leather cases, each about the size of your hand. The cases are decorated with carvings, gold-embossed designs, and sometimes, pieces of glass. When opened, each case typically reveals a velvet lining and a gold-framed image of a unsmiling man, woman, or child, who is usually seated and looking directly into the camera, a hand-painted blush on each cheek and gilt shine applied to a piece of jewelry. These images are daguerreotypes, the first type of photographic images ever made.
Frenchman Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process in 1839. In November of that year, the first authorized agent arrived in New York City selling the rights to the process and the equipment to create them. Hundreds of shops were set up within weeks, and within three years even the smallest town offered “daguerrotypy,” which was irresistible to both rich and poor, even at the high price of several dollars a portrait. The base of a daguerreotype is a silver-coated plate of copper. There is no negative involved with this process; therefore, each image is one of a kind. The image is also reversed, so wedding rings appear to be on the right hand and signs appear to be written backwards. In the first years, sitting for a daguerreotype required being exposed to light for five to seventy minutes. Soon, however, the process was improved, and the time required for sitting was reduced to a few seconds. Since this is still a long time to remain still, photographers often used a pole with a two-pronged “fork” that could be adjusted in height, called the “Jenny Lind Posing Headrest,” to keep the subject’s head immobile during exposures. Rosy cheeks and the gilt of golden jewelry were often hand painted onto the delicate image before being matted, covered in glass, and placed in its decorative case. Daguerreotypes continued to be popular through the 1850s, when they were edged out by the cheaper tintype.
The NHA Research Library houses about 200 cased daguerreotype images, many of which do not feature a photographer’s mark. We do know, however, that Nantucket hosted several traveling daguerreotypists in the years after the introduction of the process, most of whom stayed for no more than a few weeks. The earliest advertisement in the Nantucket Inquirer was in September 1841, for a Dr. Mayo G. Smith, who claimed to have been “initiated in the mysteries of Photography, by Prof. Morse of the N. York University” and offered “likenesses in neat morocco case for $3 to $5,” at the corner of Union and Main Streets. Others who visited and resided in Nantucket in the first half of the nineteenth century includes a “Mr. Dewey” in 1842 and H.S. Chase in 1843. By October 1843 George F. Barney bought Chase’s equipment and offered single images for the reduced price of $2.50 at 86 ½ Main Street. In September of 1845 Mr. E. Goddard was “prepared to execute Miniature Likenesses” at 43 Orange Street; dental surgery was performed by Doct. Adams, Practical Dentist, in the same rooms. G. W. J. Hawes, who later moved his business to New Bedford, came to Nantucket in May of 1846. Maxham & Gorham offered to “those wishing likenesses of themselves or friends, can procure them, of any shade or color desired” at 41 Orange Street in 1848.
Daguerreotypes are sometimes difficult to see clearly, because the silver coating acts like a mirror, resulting in a “negative” quality, unless you view them straight on. Ambrotypes, another kind of cased image, were created on glass and presented with black backing for viewing. Ambrotypes do not have the same negative quality when viewed, so they’re easily distinguished from daguerreotypes. The quality of the image in a daguerreotype is startlingly detailed. Hair, jewelry, and backgrounds can be examined very closely, unlike photographs made with today’s processes. Because of the nature of the process, light actually creates the image at a molecular level. There is no “grain” to be seen as there is with modern film. In practical terms, when you look at a daguerreotype through a magnifying glass, the closer you look, the more you see. For example, an image of a street scene may have a street sign a full block away in the background. With magnification, one can read the text on this sign (remembering that it’s backwards).
If you have a daguerreotype, the best way to preserve it is to keep it out of light. Propping the case open on a shelf, as you would modern photographs, causes daguerreotypes to fade quickly. You might consider having a duplicate made, and displaying the duplicate image. If the case of your daguerreotype has come apart, remember that the surface of the image is extremely fragile, and can be damaged with the touch of a finger – it will retain forever fingerprints left on its surface. You might consider having it professionally re-cased in the same case with new glass.
When I look at daguerreotypes, I am always reminded how startling it must have been to see a photograph when the process was first invented. The detail of the image and the immediacy of delivery were entirely new. Before the daguerreotype, people only had their likeness if they could afford to commission a portrait to be painted. We’re fortunate that many Nantucketers cared to have their “likenesses” captured, and lucky to have them here at the NHA, where we can preserve and provide access to them.
Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004, by Georgen Charnes.