Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.
Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.
In about 1849, a mother and child were photographed in a New York town where visionaries struggled to change the world.
A long inscription is penciled inside the case of this daguerreotype: “The picture of Flora and her mother, taken when she was three years old at McGrawville, Cortland Co., NY.
“I’ll think of thee at eventide/ When shines the star of love/ When Earth is garnished like a bride/ and all is joy a-bove/ and when the moon’s pale genial face/ is shed or [sic] land & sea/ and throughs [sic] around her soft light/ t’is then I think of thee. EM
“Flora & I are in the parlor as I write this, talking of the war, etc. etc. Henry …?… is buried Thursday Oct. 30th, ’62.”
The sentimental verse is likely based on “Better Moments,” by poet Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806-1867), printed in 7 July, 1827’s New-York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, Volume IV, as well as and in the New Mirror’s Poems of Passion in 1843. Willis’s poem includes the lines: “I have been out at eventide/ Beneath a moonlit sky of spring/ When Earth was garnished like a bride/ And night had on her silver wing.” It is uncertain whether variants of Willis’s poem existed that included the stanza scriven in the case, or whether the writer “borrowed” a few lines of it for his or her own poetic creation.
“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. An inscription in the case identifies her as “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.
“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.”