The daguerreotype is a type of photograph, but, unlike modern photographs, it has no negative. Instead, it is an image exposed directly onto a mirror-polished surface of silver housed in a velvet-lined folding case. While the daguerreotype was not the first photographic process to be developed, images of earlier processes tended to fade quickly when exposed to light. The daguerreotype photographic process was one of the first to permanently record and affix an image, and became the first commercially used photographic process.
The daguerreotype is named after its inventor, French artist and chemist Louis J.M. Daguerre, who announced its perfection (after years of experimentation) in 1839 (the French Academy of Sciences announced the process on January 9 of that year). Daguerre's patent was acquired by the French Government. On August 19, 1839 the French Government announced the invention a gift "Free to the World."
The daguerreotype was a positive-only process allowing no reproduction of the picture. The development of the image was effected by placing the exposed plate over a slightly heated (about 75°C) cup of mercury. The vapour of mercury condensed on those places where the light had acted in an almost exact ratio to the intensity of its action. This produced a picture in an amalgam, the vapour of which attached itself to the altered silver iodide. Proof that such was the case was subsequently afforded by the fact that the mercurial image could be removed by heat. The developing box was so constructed that it was possible to examine the picture through a yellow glass window whilst the image was being brought out. The next operation was to fix the picture by dipping it in a solution of hyposulphite of soda. The image produced by this method is so delicate that it will not bear the slightest handling, and has to be protected from being accidentally touched.
Daguerreotypy spread rapidly, except in England, where Daguerre had secretly patented his process before selling it to the French government.
In the early 1840s the invention was quickly introduced (within a matter of months) to artists in the United States by Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph. An exuberant market in portraits, often the work of itinerant artists who moved from town to town, sprang up.
People often believe that the daguerreotype was the most commonly used method of photography into the late part of the 19th century. Actually this process was used for only about 10 years, before it was overtaken by other processes:
The rapid move away from daguerreotype photography was inevitable; the process is intricate and complex, labor intensive, and involves many stages of production. This made daguerrotypes expensive and not affordable to the average person. Also, the typical exposure was often 60 to 90 seconds long, requiring the sitter(s) to remain immobile and hold a pose for all that time — when you view a true daguerreotype of exceptional clarity, keep this in mind. Finally — and perhaps most important — since there is no negative, it had no intermediate stage from which a final image could later be reproduced.
- the Ambrotype introduced in 1854, a positive image on glass, with a black backing
- the Tintype or Ferrotype, an image on chemically-treated tin
- the albumen print, a paper photograph produced from large glass negatives most commonly used in American Civil War photography.
Unlike film and paper photography, a daguerreotype can last forever, when properly sealed.
Today these antique items are avidly collected. Some daguerreotypes - such as those by Southworth & Hawes; of Boston, or George S. Cook of Charleston, South Carolina (shown below) - are considered masterpieces of the art of photography.
See also: photography
Some parts of this text are derived from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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The Library of Congress
Extensive online exhibitions of historic photographs and documents. Includes the American Memory Historical Collections, a display of American history in words, sound, and pictures.
Fine Antique Cameras
Display and collection of classic cameras, stereoscopic cameras, magic lanterns, stereoviews, viewers, daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes.
Incorporates vintage photographs onto 3-dimensional everyday objects used for interior design. Includes background information, gallery, and links.
Art and Medicine
A resource for scholars interested in vintage medical photography and clinical portraits. Includes the complete translation and 52 plates of "Klinische Abbildungen" by Heinrich Curschmann.
Bill's Antique Photo Pages
Personal collection of antique photographs.
Eldorado Web Productions Gallery
Collection of historic photographs taken in the Philippines and other Asian countries from the early 1900's to 1930. Includes steam ships, people, churches, rural housing, and U.S. Army Air Corps photos.
Swastika Gold Mine
Collection of photographs printed from the original glass negatives that chronicle work at the Swastika Gold Mining Company site of 1911. Includes history and vintage news items about the mine.
19th Century Photo Collecting
Highlights a personal collection of Daguerreotypes and Union Cases including individual commentary about each image.
Echos of the Past Archive
Archive of family photos from very early photographs through the 20th century. Photos are cataloged by surname to help families find ancestors.
Miss Mary's Emporium of the Quaint and Curious
The Emporium is a unique spot on the Web where guests are invited to explore collections of antique photographs, postcards and ephemera.
Carte-de-Visite, Victorian Photographs
An Archive of small victorian photographs useful to those interested in the history of fashion and photography.
Offering images, history, and information on Stanhopes, the miniature microphotographic lenses incorporated into many novelty collectables produced from the mid-19th century onwards.
Mendocino County Post Cards
Collection of historical views of Mendocino County, California. Photos include towns, street views, buildings, schools, mills, and people.
Photographies Stereoscopiques 1850-1871
Online gallery of early stereoviews of Paris, Montmatre, Lyon, plus other areas of France and Egypt. Includes a brief history of photography, and links.
Collection of over 700,000 vintage photographs specializing in medical and historical images. Services offered include stock photograph licensing, research, and creation of exhibitions and documentaries.
Stereoviews of the Nineteenth Century
Collection of stereoviews, along with stereoview and antique photography links.
A cross reference library consisting of hundreds of web pages of Wallace Nutting photographs and other collectibles.
Mirror Images Daguerreotype Gallery
Site devoted to the history of the Daguerreotype. Includes information on identifying images, a photo gallery, email greeting cards, and links.
Features color images of daguerreotypes. Includes information about each image and links to other daguerreotype sites.
The Daguerreian Society
Dedicated to the history, science, and art of the daguerreotype. This site features galleries, extensive resources, and information.
Brief story of the Daguerreotype. Includes an image gallery, shopping, and links.
American Museum of Photography
View great images from the history of photography, daguerreotypes to Ansel Adams. Features Americana, Civil War, Wild West, portraits, scenes, photojournalism, plus services for collectors and researchers.
A collection of Victorian Studio photographs known as Cartes-de-Visite arranged by decade.
Vintage Pix: Images of Women in the Past
Collection of historic photos of women from the 1860s to the 1930s. Categories of photos are organized by decade or image theme including courtship, women at work, and hats.
North American Tour ca 1885
A site created to help try to identify the people and locations in a collection of 19th Century round photographs. Identified views include Yosemite and Hotel Del Monte, a Victorian hotel in Monterey CA.
Historical Graphics Gallery
Exhibits of photographs, political cartoons, advertising, and other 19th and 20th century pictures and illustrations, from Napoleon through the Civil War to Theodore Roosevelt.
Daguerreotypes at Harvard
An online exhibition of daguerreotypes selected from Harvard's extensive collection. Includes notes and information about each image.
Civil War Family Photographs
Site devoted to sharing private family Civil War photos. View images organized by Union, Confederate, and Veterans photo sections.
Silver & Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush
View rare and historic daguerreotypes and ambrotypes made between 1848 and 1860, presented by the Oakland Museum of California. Includes descriptive commentary for each image.
William R. Howell
History and selected photographs of a forgotten 19th-Century photographer.