Photography: Daguerreotypes

Figure 1.--This is an unusual sixth-plate daguerreotype by an unidentified photographer, probably taken about 1850. Notice the large number of buttons. We see this in a number of daguerreotypes showinf a 1850s style. It is unlikely that this is a portrait parents would have commissioned. Mother of course would have insisted that he have his shirt on and properly buttoned. Rather itlooks like a artistic piece posed by the photographer. It is especially interesting as it shows what a boy wore under his shirt in the 1850s. Sixth-plate daguerreotype by an unidentified photographer, circa 1850. He is pictured, for some unknown reason, with an upholsterer's tack hammer to strike a threaded rod from a woodworking clamp.

Daguerre continued Niépce's experiment. He accidentally discovered that exposed photographic plates were developed by Mercury vapors. This greatly reduced the exposure time from 8 hours down to 1/2 an hour. Daguerre announced his discovery in 1839 and named it the Daguerreotype. It was a sensation and an instant popular success. The announcement that the Daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing...." and that "anyone may succeed.... and perform as well as the author of the invention" was greeted with enormous interest, and "Daguerreomania" became a craze overnight. The process could produce strikingly beautiful images. They provide us the first true photogaphs of the 19th century.The Daguerreotype process, though good, was expensive. In addition, it produced a positive image which could not be duplicated.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre

The daguerreotype process was invented in France by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. Daguerre continued Niépce's experiment. He accidentally discovered that exposed photographic plates were developed by Mercury vapors. This greatly reduced the exposure time from 8 hours down to 1/2 an hour. Daguerre announced his discovery in 1839 and named it the Daguerreotype.

Instant Success

It was a sensation and an instant popular success. The announcement that the Daguerreotype "requires no knowledge of drawing...." and that "anyone may succeed.... and perform as well as the author of the invention" was greeted with enormous interest, and "Daguerreomania" became a craze overnight. A new occupation was created, that of the phitographer. Budding photographers in America and other countries quickly capitalized on Daguerre's invention, which was capable of capturing a "truthful likeness." Daguerreotypists in major cities invited celebrities and political figures to their studios in the hopes of obtaining a likeness for display in their windows and reception areas. They encouraged the public to visit their galleries, which were like museums, in the hope that they would desire to be photographed as well. By 1850, there were over 70 daguerreotype studios in New York City alone.

The Process

The daguerreotype was a direct-positive process, creating a highly detailed image . The image was produced on a thin sheet of copper plated with a highly polished silver coating. The image was produced without the use of a negative. The process required great care. The silver-plated copper plate had first to be cleaned and polished until the surface looked like a mirror. Next, the plate was sensitized in a closed box over iodine until it took on a yellow-rose appearance. The plate, held in a lightproof holder, was then transferred to the camera. After exposure to light, the plate was developed over hot mercury until an image appeared. To fix the image, the plate was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride.

Protective Cases and Mounts

Early photographs were very expensive and fragile. This meant that because of the cost, storage was not a very serious problem. The cost meant that there were not very many photographs. The fragility meant that they had to be well protected. Thus the initial system of little cases worked well. Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes came in these cases. Some cases were highly decorated. The finished Daguerreotype image was sealed in glass to protect the plate from both atmospheric and physical damage. The mounting varied from country to country. The common practice in the United states was tp mount the Daguerreotype in small hinged cases. The cases were normally made of wood with artistically crafted leather or paper coverings. A good example of a Daguerrotype mounting is a portrait of Eddie Lincoln We also find tin-types in these cases, although inexpensive mounts that looked liked these cases were developed for tin-types because people came to think that was how photographs should be presented. Our interest in these cases is that they can be useful in dating the portraits. This is particularly important because so few dags and ambros are dated. There are several elements of the case which can be used in dating the cases, including the case, the decorative plate, and the covering ocer the actual plate. A German reader tells us that these cased portraits were much less common in Germany that they were in America. While these cases were the primary way of preparing dags, they were not the only way.

Stereo Portraits

Some dags were done in twin portraits for stereoscopic viewing. This was not very common because oif the cost. Dags were fairly expensive at the time because of the polished metal plate required. We do not note very many stereo dags, but we have found a few. A good exanple is a portrait of an unidentified English family, probably taken in the 1850s. Stereo images become much more common in the 1860s with the development of negative-based photography.


We do not know a great deal about Daguerreotype studios. They no dobnt varied greatly. The facilities a studio might have would be: 1) a reception/waiting area, 2) the shoot area (here light was critical), 3) dark room/chemistry area, and workshop area. Some studios were more basic than others and some of these areas might be mixed purpose areas. Customers or example might wait in the shooting area, but of course not the darkroom/chemistry area. An estabkished studio might have an attractive display of the finished produt, especially if they had photographed some notable individuals. The the sophistication of the studio. would depend on the success of the Daguerreotypist and the clientel he attracted. A successful Paris, London, and New York studio would be much more likely to be a sophisticated estabkishment than say a studio in a fronteir American studio. The studio would not have been sitiated just anywhere. They were commonly located at top of a building, which would have a glass roof to let in light. The more light, the shorter the exposure time. Of course long exposures increased the chances the subject would spoil the image by noving. This was a special problem with children. Most Daguerreotype studios were opened in the 1840s or early 50s. Thus there were not as many multiple-story buildings than would be the case by the late-19th century. Thus finding a top story location would not have been a great problem. The employees at the studio would be likely almost men and boys. The Daugerreotypist might have an assistant, nore in a big city studio to help with the posing and chemical processing. Other employees would be needed to fill other requirements such as preparing the right sized polished plates. Others were needed to prepare the decorated, prolished cases.

Positive Image

One of the drawbacks of the Dguerreotype was that it was a possitive image. It is a mirror-image which has been reversed (left to right) of the photographed subject and scene. "It could appear as a positive or negative image depending on the angle of viewing and the light falling upon it. The fact that it was a positive, however, meant that copies couild not be made. There were no negatives that could be conveniently and inexpensively duplicated. That meant copies could not be made to send to families and friends.


The daguerreotype process could produce strikingly beautiful images. They provide us the first true photogaphs of the 19th century. The Daguerreotype process, however, had serious limitations. Though good, it was expensive. A tyypical studio in America might charge $5.00 for a Daguerreotype portrait. That was more than the average person earned for a full weeks worth. Daguerreotypes were also almost always small images. Producing a large plate was very difficult. As a result, Daguerreotypes were rarely made larger than 6 ½ to 8 ½ inches. Daguerreotypes in this larger size were known as whole-plates. The much more most common size produced was the "sixth-plate size" which measured 2 ½ by 3 ¼ inches.


Most existing Daguerreotypes are undated. Unlike the prints that appeared later, there was nowhere to conveniently write an inscription. The chronology of the commercial business provides some help in dating the images. The Daguerreotype was the first successful commercial photographic process. It was invented in 1839 and quickly appeared in America. Daguerreotypes from the 1830s and early 40s are, however, rate. Larger numbers are available from the mid-40s and especially the 50s. Large numbers of Daguerreotypes were made during the 1850s, especially the early 50s. The Daguerreotype was the dominant photographic process for a relatively short period. Because it was the first process, however, it us the best known and commonly all early positive processes are called Daguerreotypes. The late 1850s is more complicated because competing positive processes appeard. The Ambrotype was introduced in 1854. This produced a positive image on glass, with a black backing which looked something like a Daguerreotype. The Tintype or Ferrotype appeared in 1856. It was an image on a thin asphaltum-coated iron plates. These processes had some advantages over the Daguerreotype process. (They involved a less complicated process and less expensive materials and the speed was faster. As a result they were less expensive and involved a shorter posing period.) Thus many psitives taken in the late 1850s andearly 60s are not dags. It was the appearance of the popular CDV and cabinent cards in the 1860s caused the Daguerreotype to rapidly decline in popularity after the early 1860s. Daguerreotypes were still made throughout the 1860s, although in increasingly small numbers. They are very rare by the 1870s. We are unsure how to assess the date of Daguerreotype image. We would be very interested if readers know of any pointers to assess undated Daguerreotypes. The fact that the Daguerreotype procedss was dominant in the 1840s and early 50s, but that relatively few dags were made in the 40s, suggests that most surviving images come from the late 40s and early 1850s. Images from the 1840s are rather rare. We do note quite a number of positives from the very early 1860s, but many of these are Ambrotypes or Tintypes.


We have very limited country information at this time. Most of our information about Daguerreotypes comes from what we have found about this format in America. We kniw less about Europe. Of course the Daguerreotype was developed in France. It was the first popular photographic process. Thus it must have been very popular in countries like England and in the German states. (A united German did not come about until later.) We have no information on just how popular Daguerreotypes were in different countries. America in the 1840s and 50s was still a European backwater. America was growing, but still very rural compared to Europe. Surely photographic studios producung Daguerreotypes must have been more common in Europe than America. Gere we are just guessing, but we would have though many more Daguerreotypes made in Europe than America. That said, we do note that the photographic business grew very rapidly in America. One source reports that there were 70 studios in New York city alone. Hiw that compares to other large cities around the world, we are not sure. One easily accessible indicator of popularity is the internet. Most of the auguerrotypes we see advertized on eBay are American. Very rarely do we see European dags. For some reason which we do not understand, cased images in general seem less common in Europe than in America. A German reader tells us, "Yes, dags and ambros came in cases but I have never seen a German tintype in a case before. Actually here in Germany I see very few cased photos at all. On are much more cased photos offered compared to there were cased photos but not as many as in the United States."


Many Daguerrotypes were sols without ny colorization. Many portraits of children had their cheeks colorized and the studio may have gone further colorfizing lips, jewelry, clothing, flowes, table cloths (many images had tables with brightly patterened table cloths) and more. A good example of an extensively colorized dag is Elisha Dickkerman, an American boy about 1850. Another example of a colorized dag is an unidentified English family, we believe in the mid-19=850s.

HBC Archive

HBC has archived a number of Daguerreotypes in its various pages. Most of the ones we have found are American. A good example is a unidentified portrait of a child in a checked dress. One image from the 1850s is Eddie Lincoln. We also see a 1850s family showing a boy wearing a polka-dot blouse. We do not yet have any 1830s dags, but most of the dags archived in the 1840s and 1850s portraits are Daguerrotypes.

Identifying Daguerrotypes

Some early photographic types are difficulr to iderntify. Bot so the Daguerreotype. It is unique and easy to identify. It is made of a thick metal plate that is highly polished metal plate. Tin types are thin and easily bent. The dag plate has a reflective, virtual mirror-like appearance. The image is in some ways similar to the holograms found on credit cards. Like a hologram, the dag impage can only be seen from some angles. This destingues the Daguerrotype. The thickness of the metal sheet, the polished surface, and the floating image.

Collecting Daguerreotypes

Original daguerreotypes of famous persons and places are quite rare and very valuable. Because of the fragility of the copper plates, most all the originals have many scratches and other imperfections on them.

Daguerrrotype Society

Note the link is to a costume board, you have to scroll down to select the Daguerrrotype Society.


Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to:Main photographic page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]

Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Sailor suits] [Sailor hats] [Buster Brown suits]
[Eton suits] [Rompers] [Tunics] [Smocks] [Pinafores]

Created: September 7, 2002
Last updated: 12:36 AM 7/21/2008