“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”―Marcus Aurelius
We see the still, worn body of old lady, prepared for burial by her family and laid out, most likely, upon her own bed.
This photograph may have been both this woman’s first and her last. She was likely a child in the 1790s and a young wife and mother when Jane Austen wrote her literary oeuvre. The story of her life unfolded during the waning of one century and the child years of another. For many, by the time this post-mortem ambrotype was taken, familiar patterns of life had been radically altered by the industrial revolution. The War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars had rolled by like awful storms. The British Queen would shortly lose her dearest love and plunge herself into perpetual mourning. America was spilling out across a vast continent and tensions were escalating to the point of eruption between its North and South. War was a dark cloud on the horizon, threatening the young men of her family, but mercifully, she never saw it blot out the sun.
A note tucked inside the case of this 1/6th-plate reads, “Grandmother Whitney—mother of Samuel. Born between 1775 & 1780.” The plate is stamped “Melainotype for Neff’s Pat 19 Feb 56.”
In John Towler’s 1864 opus on what was then state-of-the-art photographic technology, The Silver Sunbeam, he writes, “The melainotype takes its name from the black background upon which it is taken…. Very thin plates of sheet-iron are covered with a protective varnish or Japan, of which one is of a rich black or brown-black color, highly polished, and without flaw, for the reception of the collodion and the collodion picture. Glass in this sort of picture is entirely dispensed with, and so is also the black Japan, the black velvet, and paper. This type is by far the easiest and the quickest to take, and in general the most satisfactory when taken. Melainotype plates of all the variable photographic sizes, and of variable qualities, can be obtained from the photographic warehouses.” Ω
Julia was one of thousands of Americans who made for California after gold was discovered in 1848.
This wonderful 1/6th-plate daguerreotype shows a plump, well-dressed, melancholy woman whose first name was Julia. An inscription in the case reads “Aunt Julia. mothers [sic] sister that went to Calif. in 1851 or 52.” Unfortunately, the niece or nephew who penned this message to posterity left out Julia’s last name. Lacking it, we will never know Julia’s story, save that this daguerreotype almost certainly marked her departure west, as her fashionable clothing and coiffure can be dated to about 1851.
After the Gold Rush kicked off in January 1848, many thousands hurried west to seek their fortune or to provide goods and services for those allured by gold’s siren song. This mass movement lifted the nonnative population from less than a thousand to 100,000. Filled by newcomers and new wealth, the California Territory was quickly admitted as the U.S. 31st state on 9 September, 1850.
The society that Julia joined was only somewhat more than nascent. One new arrival, Jessie Benton Fremont, who came by sea to San Francisco in 1849, noted her first impressions from the deck of the vessel, “A few low houses, and many tents, such as they were, covered the base of some of the wind-swept treeless hills, over which the June fog rolled its chilling mist.” (A Year of American Travel, published 1878.)
Fremont, the daughter of Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and the wife of military officer and politician John C. Fremont, was used to the finer things. Her account of society in early San Francisco and Monterrey makes for enticing reading. I quote her here at length not necessarily as a member of the social class that Julia represented, but as one of the few surviving women’s voices from the Gold Rush era.
“I was taken to one of these houses, which had been the residence of Liedesdorff, the Russian consul, who had recently died there. It was a time of wonderful contrasts. This was a well-built adobe house one story high, with a good veranda about it, and a beautiful garden kept in old-world order by a Scotch gardener. Luxuries of every kind were to be had, but there were wanting some necessaries. Fine carpets and fine furniture and a fine Broadwood piano, and no house-maid. The one room with a fire-place had been prepared for my sleeping-room, and had French furniture and no end of mirrors, but lacked a fire. The June winds were blowing, and I felt them the more from recent illness, which had left the lungs very sensitive. There was no fuel proper; and little fagots of brush-wood, broken-up goods boxes and sodden ends of old ship timber were all that could be had.
“The club of wealthy merchants who had this house together had excellent Chinese servants, but to make everything comfortable to me they added the only woman that could be procured, who accepted a temporary place of chamber-maid at two hundred and forty dollars a month and perquisites. One of the perquisites was the housing of her husband and children as well as herself. She had been washer-woman to a New York regiment, and was already the laundress of these gentlemen. She was kind enough to tell me that she liked my clothes, and would take the pattern of certain dresses, and seemed to think it a matter of course that I would let her carry off gowns and wraps to be copied by her dress-maker, a Chinaman. I declined this as civilly as I could, but the result was that she threw up the situation.
“The only really private house was one belonging to a young New-Yorker, who had it shipped from home, house and furniture complete—a double two-story frame house, which, when in place, was said to have cost ninety thousand dollars. At this price, with the absence of timber and the absence of labor, it will be seen that it was difficult to have any other shelter than a tent. The bride for whose reception this house was intended arrived just before me, but lived only a few weeks; the sudden and great changes of climate from our Northern weather into the tropics, and from the tropics again into the raw, harsh winds of that season at San Francisco, were too much for her, even with all the comforts of her own beautiful home. At a party given to welcome her the whole force of San Francisco society came out, the ladies sixteen in number.”
Later, to aid her health, she and her husband went to Monterrey, finding “There was none of the stir and life here which made San Francisco so remarkable. There was a small garrison of married officers with their families, but no man of any degree voluntarily kept away from the mines or San Francisco; it was their great opportunity for sudden money-making. Domestic matters were even more upset than in San Francisco, where Chinese could be had. Here it was like after a shipwreck on a desert shore; the strongest and the most capable was king, and, to produce anything like comfort, all capacities had to be put to use. The major-general in command of the post, General Riley, was his own gardener. He came to me, proud and triumphant, with a small market-basket on his arm, containing vegetables of his own raising. And as we would bring roses of our cultivation, so he brought me a present of a cabbage, some carrots, and parsley.
“The French ships brought cargoes of everything that could be sealed up in tin cans and glass, but the stomach grows very weary of this sort of food. It was barely a year since the gold had been discovered, but in that time every eatable thing had been eaten off the face of the country, and nothing raised. I suppose there was not a fowl left in the northern part of the state, consequently not an egg; all the beef cattle left had been bought up by ‘Baron’ Steinberger in San Francisco; there were no longer vaqueros or herdsmen, and flocks and herds had dispersed. There were no cows, consequently no milk. Housekeeping, deprived of milk, eggs, vegetables, and fresh meat, becomes a puzzle; canned meat, macaroni, rice, and ham become unendurable from repetition.”
The Fremonts eventually left California, but she and her husband returned to settle in Los Angeles later in life. On the whole, Jessie’s was a happy, adventurous story, which ended 27 December, 1902, in her adopted state. Her ashes were buried at Rosedale Cemetery. We know nothing of Julia’s fate. The inscription implies that she never returned from California, rich or otherwise. She was an aunt unknown and passed into legend— just “mothers sister,” long away, dead or not in contact with the clan; a vestige of family recalled only by her mirror image on a metal plate. Ω
“The woolen dress in this portrait has been finished with self puffing to emphasize the waist taper, the shoulder caps, and the sleeve cuffs.”
This circa-1851 daguerreotype, now in my collection, was published on page 126 of Joan Severa’s seminal work on nineteenth century fashion, My Likeness Taken. Of it she wrote, “The woolen dress in this portrait has been finished with self puffing to emphasize the waist taper, the shoulder caps, and the sleeve cuffs. The fitted and darted bodice has the shorter waist point of the [1850s], and the skirt is taken into the waistline by small knife pleats. It is interesting to speculate on the color of the dress, as it is not black. Cherry red is a possibility, but soft brown is more likely.
“A standing band of whitework, with lappets crossed, is worn at the neck, and fine, close undersleeves extend the somewhat shortened sleeves. The netted mitts cover the fingers to the first finger joint, a new style for the year.
“The hair is done in long curls hanging behind the ears on either side.”
The figure at bottom left of this April 1851 fashion plate wears a similar dress and can help us visualize the full length gown worn by the daguerreotype’s subject. Ω
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In this daguerreotype an unknown woman sits in a high-backed chair, dressed in a patterned dress with elbow-length sleeves and a wide slanted neckline. The white paper passe partout is printed with a gold decorative pattern and the stamp “Daguerreotype by J. W. Bergström.” According to Nordiska Museet, Johan Wilhelm Bergström (1812-1881) was born in Kungsholmen to a carpenter’s wife and died quite wealthy, after a decade as a leading daguerreotypist and a career as an inventor.
According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, “This is one of the first daguerreotypes ever taken in the UK. Landscape view of London: Parliament Street from Trafalgar Square. In the foreground to the right is a statue of Charles I mounted on horseback, seen from the back, on a raised stone plinth or column with carved royal arms, surrounded by a palisade of railings and protected by stone bollards. Parliament Street goes to the left, lined with tall buildings of five or more storeys, most of which have awnings over the street. The skyline shows many chimneys and chimney-pots. The pavements have lamps at regular intervals. On the left side of the street is a line of vehicles and drivers. In the distance is the Royal Banqueting House. Note the man in a top hat sitting slumped against the lamp-post in the middle foreground, with four bollards around him.”
Technische Sammlungen writes of this portrait of an unknown man with glasses and chin whiskers wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, “A simple wooden chair, a cloth as a background, and straight posture are the ingredients of this expressive portrait. The necessity of standing still in front of the camera demanded the anonymous man maintain a firm gaze and physical immobility, which made numerous daguerreotypes appear collective portraits of bourgeois self-confidence…. The unidentifiable order ribbon on his jacket lapel adds extra strength to the man’s proud aspect like a footnote.”
Acquired by Queen Victoria in 1852, the process of making this hand-colored, enameled daguerreotype “involved varnishing the daguerreotype and then heating and adding another coat of varnish after the colour pigments had been added. Interestingly, [daguerreotypist Richard] Beard seems to have signed the plate three times, presumably before varnishing and again after each coat was added.” The subjects of the image are “a group of Tyrolese singers called Klier, Rainer, Margreiter, Rahm, and Holaus. Rahm is seated facing partly left playing a dulcimer and Rainer holds a guitar. All are wearing traditional Tyrolese costume, coloured with both dark and pastel tones. Queen Victoria had first seen this troupe of Tyrolese singers at Kensington Palace in 1833. Her mother, the Duchess of Kent, later arranged for the singers to perform at Osborne on her birthday in 1852. The Duchess recorded in her diary that ‘dearest Victoria appeared very much pleased with the surprise’. Later the same year Queen Victoria acquired this daguerreotype.”
This nude image of an unknown woman was made by daguerreotypist Felix Jacques-Antoine Moulin who ran a studio at 31 bis rue du Faubourg Montmartre from 1849. Moulin produced risqué daguerreotypes of young girls, and ultimately his work was confiscated and he was jailed for immorality. After his release, notes Archivo Gráfico José Huguet, “Moulin continued his activities more discreetly. He taught photography, sold photographic equipment, and had a backdoor installed to his studio to dodge further legal problems. His works eventually gained esteem from critics.”
This daguerreotype was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1852, notes the Royal Collection Trust. It shows “a group of 15 men, including the gamekeepers Mr. McDonald and Mr. Cowley, gathered in front of a wall of Windsor Castle. At the centre of the group a tall man stands with a gun resting on either shoulder. The man in front of him bends down to button his gaiters. All of the men are wearing top hats and most are carrying sticks…. [Daguerreotypist Theodore Robert] Brunell was invited to Windsor Castle at the beginning of 1852 to photograph the royal family. He spent almost three weeks making portraits of the royal children and also took a number of photographs of the gamekeepers. McDonald and Cowley had originally been employed at Balmoral but by 1848 were working at Windsor, with McDonald in charge of the kennels. Both men were photographed on several occasions over the following years and their portraits appear in the personal albums of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who as well as collecting portraits of their own family commissioned photographs of their staff.”
“I bought this for 6d. at a Rummage Sale at Ealing Broadway Methodist Church. It was thrown out by Mrs J. W. Allcock.”—Thomas Inwood, 1939
The first photographic image of human being was captured in 1839, when at about 8 a.m. one fine Spring day, photographic pioneer Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre sat up his camera in the window of the Diorama in Boulevard du Temple, Paris, 3rd arrondissement, for an exposure that lasted up to 12 minutes. Although the street was crowded with both persons and horse-drawn traffic, none of them remained still long enough to register save one man on a corner to whom a bootblack attended. We will never know who he was, but this 19th Century Frenchman holds a special place in mankind’s history.
In the 21st Century, we possess both still and moving images of our family and friends, but in the 1830s faces of loved ones could be preserved only by personal memory, sculpture, portraits, caricatures, or silhouettes. The vast majority of people were born and died leaving no visual legacy. This quote from Henry Fitz, Sr., captures the enthusiasm that resulted from the release of the daguerreotype process by the French government as a gift to the world 19 August, 1839: “Here is a similitude of heavenly origin! Of a wonderful power! A supernatural (so far as man’s agency is concerned,) agent! An effect produced by the light of heaven; absolutely creating man’s perfect image and identity [emphasis mine].” (The Layman’s Legacy, Volume II, 1840.)
Millions of daguerreotypes—the vast majority of them portraits—were created in the the heyday of the art. Of those, it has been estimated that several hundred thousand survive. In A Curious & Ingenious Art: Reflections on Daguerreotypes at Harvard, author Melissa Banta explains, “Like painters of miniature portraits, they adopted the convention of placing a decorative mat and a sheet of glass over the plate. They used thin paper tapes to hold the assemblage together and to protect the image from shifting. Sometimes they enveloped the entire packet in an ornate metal rim, known as a preserver. This tiny composite fit snugly into a velvet- or stain-lined case made of leather, wood, or thermoplastic, or into a frame. Such decorative touches lent the daguerreotype much of its intimacy and charm. Fortuitously, these same elements protected the plate from its worst enemies: abrasion, airborne contaminants, and corrosive substances.”
Despite the care in their making, countless daguerreotypes succumbed to attempts to clean ills that become acute over time, including “surface dust, white or beige mold spiders, silver tarnish, blue or brown spots and areas of scum deposits that were caused when the older glass leached out some of its impurities onto the surface,” notes experienced restorer Casey A. Waters of Fine Daguerreotypes & Photography. “Less common elements are daguerreian measles (tiny black dots sometimes visible through an 8x loup), a white or bluish haze (but not tarnish), residue from wax on the copper side of the plate, and exfoliation of or bubbles in the silver layer.”
There is another reason that many of these precious historic relicts are now lost: Their inheritors tipped them in the rubbish bin. We see the same phenomenon today—grandchildren or other distant relatives hurry through possessions after a death, keeping only what appears valuable at that moment. Unidentified images of people who mean nothing to the inheritors are discarded.
The daguerreotype at the top of this article was mercifully saved from oblivion and now resides in the James Morley Collection. “I bought this for 6d. at a Rummage Sale at Ealing Broadway Methodist Church. It was thrown out by Mrs J. W. Allcock. 37 Hillcroft Crescent. Ealing W5. Spring 1937,” wrote Thomas Ernest Inwood (b. 1871) on a slip of paper inside the daguerreotype’s case. James Morley ascertained that Inwood lived at 8 North Common Road, Ealing, in 1937, when he spent his 6d. on this portrait of an unknown adolescent, seeing in it what others could not. “This is a Daguerreotype Portrait. About 1845. These photos were taken between 1842-1857. The Chief Librarian at the Victoria & Albert Museum said it was a splendid specimen & well worth retaining. Centenary of Photography 1839-1939. 12 January, 1939.”
The Allcock family lived at 37 Hillcroft Crescent, Ealing, in 1937, headed by John William Allcock, and including his wife Mabel, née Hewson, and daughter Ruth. John Allcock was a Wesleyan Methodist Minister, born in Litchurch, Derbyshire, in 1870 to railway messenger William Allcock (1828-1903) and his wife Sarah Naylor Gott (1839-1919). If the daguerreotype’s young subject is an Allcock, he was from William’s generation. Ω
“Because I feel that in the heavens above
The angels, whispering one to another,
Can find among their burning tears of love,
None so devotional as that of ‘Mother,’
Therefore, by that dear name I have long called you,
You who are more than mother unto me.” — Edgar Allan Poe
A quick note: I will be having surgery on Tuesday, 4 April, and will be taking at least a four- or five-day hiatus to recover. I will return as soon as possible. Promise.