Daguerreotypes

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At a time when people across the world were experimenting with ways to permanently capture images, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre announced what is considered to be the first practical and commercially successful photographic process in France in 1839. The daguerreotype was not the first photograph, but the technique marked the beginning of photography being available to the public. Instructions for the process, printed in European newspapers, arrived in New York City on September 20, 1839 aboard a ship. By the summer of 1840 a string of daguerreotype galleries had opened in the Northeast.

As photography spread west, resourceful photographers were often mobile and itinerant, sometimes traveling with wagons that served as portable studios and darkrooms. The first photographers entering Texas came through the port of Galveston. The earliest documented photographer in Texas is a woman known today simply as Mrs. Davis. She advertised in a Houston newspaper in December 1843 that she had a complete daguerreotype apparatus and would work in the city for two or three weeks before moving on. Other details about Mrs. Davis are few and examples of her work are yet to be found. Likewise, little is known about most of the other early daguerreotypists in Texas, though some made their marks by advertising in local newspapers as Mrs. Davis had done.

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Few photographers signed their work in this era, so many of the subjects remain anonymous portraits made by anonymous daguerreotypists. One of the ways we can describe these early photographs is by the photo size even when few other details are known. Part of the prescribed daguerreotype technique was producing the images in format sizes based on fractions of a standard known as a plate. A whole plate was approximately 6.5 by 8.5 inches. Daguerreotypes, as well as later cased images, were routinely made in half, quarter, sixth, ninth, and sixteenth-plate sizes, and often designated in numerical fractions, such as 1/16–plate.

Items on display in this exhibit

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Samuel and Mary Bewley portrait, 1964/306-1383Samuel and Mary Bewley portrait, 1964/306-1383

Samuel Baker Bewley immigrated to Texas from Alabama in the early 1850s. He is seated next to his wife, Mary Elizabeth Johnson. At the time of this picture, Bewley was about 29 years old, Mary about 19.

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Mr. and Mrs. George Washington WrightMr. and Mrs. George Washington Wright, 1936/010-1 and 2

George Washington Wright, one of the eight men who voted against secession at the convention of 1861, is seen here with his presumed second wife, Sarah Jane Mebane.

Velvet case and preserverVelvet case and preserver, 1993/204

The different elements of a daguerreotype provide clues that can help date an image. Typically, the image was placed under a mat, which was covered with a piece of glass. All three parts were then bound together around the edges. Beginning about 1847, a brass frame called a "preserver" was wrapped around the taped assembly. The entire package was then placed into a wooden or thermoplastic case for protection and presentation.

Thermoplastic caseThermoplastic case, 1964/265-1

Early daguerreotype cases were usually made of wood covered with leather and lined with felt or silk. Around 1856 a new composite called thermoplastic was made from sawdust and varnish to create Union cases, named for the union of the different materials used to make the composite. Many cases are considered miniature works of art and have value of their own apart from the images they hold. Design themes include symbols from literature, mythology, patriotism, and religion. 

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Velvet book-style caseVelvet book-style case, 1964/265-2

The introduction of the carte de visite format in 1857 with its use of the four-lens camera and paper copies of photographs marked the beginning of the end for the art form of case-making. The history and lifespan of the miniature case is intimately associated with the development of the photographic process.

Portrait of unidentified man with ringPortrait of unidentified man with ring, 1/134-08

This man appears to be wearing a ring on his right hand. Because daguerreotypes and other camera original images, such as ambrotypes and tintypes, portray their subjects reversed left to right from nature, the ring is actually on his left hand.

Woman with books, roses, and stringed musical instrumentWoman with books, roses, and stringed musical instrument, 1/102-686

The private daguerreotype portrait was a deliberate attempt in self-representation where subjects posed in ways that they viewed themselves or wished to be perceived. This half-view studio portrait of an unidentified woman is reflective of that constructed reality where themes of class, gentility and domesticity intersect to present the image of a lady of refinement and sophistication.

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Gem portrait of unidentified womanGem portrait of unidentified woman, 1/134-03

Cased photos smaller than 1/16-plate format were often classified as gems. Very small photos were sometimes incorporated in lockets, pins and other jewelry.

Caleb BrownCaleb Brown, 1/147-2

Caleb Brown was a brother of John Henry Brown, newspaper editor, soldier and legislator. Brown County is named after their father, Henry Stevenson Brown. The case for this image is made of wood and paper. The mat provides clues that help to date the photograph. Its octagonal shape suggests that it was made some time in the early 1840s but not later than 1845, at which point the mat finish became smoother and newer designs for the opening started to appear.

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Page last modified: May 20, 2016