Daguerreian Society

On this day (April 17) in the year 1891, the following article appeared 
as the third in a series in "The Photographic Times" (New York; pp. 183-




  The photographer of to-day has his plates furnished to his hand ready 
made, and all he has to do to obtain the best result in the world is to 
put one of them in his plate-holder, expose and develop it properly, 
fix, wash and dry--and there he is.

But what would the old time daguerreotypist have thought if he had been 
told of a camera loaded with a hundred plates all ready to be exposed 
whenever and wherever he might chose--to-day, or next year, or ten years 
hence; at home, or anywhere else on earth; and furthermore, that after 
being carried to the ends of the earth in quest of subjects, they might 
be brought back and developed in the same room where they were put up?  
This I fancy would have been considered a possibility more remote than 
taking the colors of nature.
  In striking contrast with the present art of picture-making was the 
laborious process which the daguerreotypist of those early days was 
obliged to go through to obtain his single result.  His plates, if they 
came from France, bore the marks of the planishing hammer; if they were 
of American manufacture they were covered with fine lines running in one 
direction, which were probably produced by the machine used for scouring 
them.  In either case a new surface had to be given the plates, and to 
do this in the best manner required a degree of mechanical skill which 
was not in all cases readily acquired.  A perfect mirror surface was the 
end aimed at.  First the plate (the edges being bent down) was scoured 
with the finest levigated rotten-stone and alcohol, applied with a 
pledget of cotton or a small patch of cotton flannel.  This was done to 
make the surface clean of any impurities which might adhere to it, and 
to efface the hammer marks or lines referred to.  The rotten-stone was 
cleaned off with fresh cotton or flannel, and it was shown by breathing 
on the plate whether this part of the work was properly done.  If so, 
the plate was ready for buffing.  The primitive buff consisted of a 
strip of board about 20 to 24 inches long by 3 wide, a little convex 
lengthwise, one end of which was formed into a handle, and the rest of 
the length covered with two or three thicknesses of cloth, and finally 
with prepared buckskin.  Then pure jeweler's rouge of the finest 
quality, which was tied in a close-woven muslin bag, was sifted over the 
face of the leather, rubbed into the pores, and the excess brushed off 
with a clean bristle brush.  The plate, resting on a level bed and held 
firmly at one end by a vise, was then rubbed by the forward and backward 
motion of the buff, the work being similar to the physical exercise of 
wood sawing or that of using a jack plane.  What was saved in the less 
muscular strength required to wield the buff was made up for in the 
greater velocity of motion with which it was usually swung, especially 
when several customers were waiting.  After buffing the plate in one 
position it was turned and the other end fastened in the vise and the 
polishing repeated; again it was turned and polished lengthwise also in 
both directions as it had before been polished crosswise.
  After the plate had received in this manner as high a polish as 
possible, it was attached to the cathode or negative pole of a single-
cell Daniels battery, and immersed in the silver solution in which was 
suspended a plate of pure silver connected with the other pole.  In a 
short time a thin coating of silver was deposited on the plate, changing 
the polished surface to one of sky-blue color.  Then it was washed, 
dried over a spirit lamp and again buffed.  Finally the finishing touch 
was given the plate with a buff covered with silk velvet and powdered 
with calcined lamp-black.
  This lamp-black was prepared as follows:  Two crucibles, one of a size 
smaller than the other, were packed full of common lamp-black; the 
smaller one inverted and pressed into the top of the larger, the two 
then luted together with clay, and fired for an hour at red heat.  This 
burned up all the resinous matter, leaving only an almost impalpable 
powder of nearly pure carbon, which gave to the velvet a most delicate 
tooth, with which was produced a deeper and more perfect polish than was 
otherwise obtained, although it was not always used.
  I remember being told by a silversmith that he thought he could give 
me some hints about polishing silver that might be serviceable, and 
would be glad to do so.  I thanked him for his offer, but before 
accepting it polished one of my plates as well as I knew how, and took 
it to him in a plate-holder, which I held before his face and drew the 
slide.  Seeing only the reflection of his own face, he asked:
  "What have you there?"
  "One of my polished plates."
  "Well, I have nothing more to say.  I never saw anything like it."
  A plate so prepared was ready for the coating boxes, that is, if the 
work had been properly executed.  It was quite possible to do it in such 
a bungling manner that the plate would be entirely unfit for use.  When 
this happened an expert could see that the polishing powder had been 
rubbed into the plate, and it was then necessary to heat it over a 
spirit lamp until a scum was thrown out upon the surface, which must be 
scoured off and the buffing repeated more skillfully and with a lighter 
hand.  A pure surface of silver and the highest polish were 
indispensable prerequisites of a fine daguerreotype.
  The iodine and bromine were contained in heavy, oblong glass jars, as 
large inside at the top as the largest plate to be used.  The top of the 
jar being ground to a level, was fitted with a cover of plate glass, 
also ground, and this last again was inserted flush in a sliding frame 
twice the length of the box in which the jar was placed.  When the 
coating box was not in use the plate glass was over the jar and held 
firmly down by a wooden screw passing through a bridge across and above 
it.  When in this position the other half of the sliding frame (which 
was open) projected beyond the box, and held the kits for the different 
sizes of plates.  A second cover of the same length as the box and the 
same width as the sliding cover was held down upon the latter by a brass 
spring, exactly like those now used on printing frames, which spring was 
screwed to the non-sliding cover, the ends of the spring being pressed 
down and into gains cut in the under side of the bridge before 
mentioned.  This last was held by dove-tail joints in the sides of the 
box (which were wider than the ends), and could be readily removed and 
the covers lifted off when occasion required.
  In the first coating box was placed a sufficient quantity of pure 
iodine in crystals, and with it a small iron cup containing chloride of 
calcium to prevent the vapors of iodine from being mixed with moisture 
before uniting with the plate.  This desiccator was dried every morning 
over the spirit lamp.  The second box contained the famous "Mayall Quick 
Stuff" as it was called, consisting of bromine, hydrofluoric acid, 
sulphuric acid and water.
  To coat a plate it was placed face down in its proper kit in the open 
and projecting end of the sliding cover, the binding screw relieved by a 
turn, the projecting end shoved under the top cover and over the iodine.
  The utility of this extra cover is now shown.  The elasticity of the 
spring holding it in contact with the slide and the latter in contact 
with the jar, permits the backward and forward motion of the same, while 
it prevents the escape into the room of the vapors of iodine when the 
plate is over the jar.  The temperature of the room must be such as to 
permit the moderate vaporization of this halogen, and the plate, after a 
short interval, is slid back and inspected.  This is the most 
interesting part of the manipulation.  The progress of the coating is 
shown by the colors assumed by the sensitive surface, the changes of 
which are carefully watched in a weak light with the aid of a sheet of 
white paper fastened to the wall within easy reach, for comparison.  
First, the plate assumes a lemon yellow, then a deeper yellow, then 
passes into a faint rose, then a deep rose; from this a light gray tint 
begins to touch over the surface, from which it soon changes to a cold 
steel gray, and then the series begins over again.  Perhaps no two 
photographers ever coated their plates exactly alike.  Some stopped 
their first coating at the yellow color, some at the light rose.  I 
generally preferred the point where the rose just began to merge into 
  The time during which the plate was over the iodine in assuming the 
desired color was kept by counting, because after being coated with the 
accelerator it must be returned to the iodine and recoated one-third as 
long as the first time.
  When the proper tint was reached, the plate was transferred to the 
second coating box until the color changed to the next stage of the 
series, after which it was recoated with iodine in the manner mentioned.  
Different proportions of iodine and bromine produced different effects 
in the resulting picture.  These modifications were curiously similar to 
those now capable of being produced in the development of a dry plate.  
But in the daguerreotype a larger proportion of bromine tended to 
softness and less contrast, a smaller proportion to greater brilliancy, 
and it was always a study to adapt the coating of the plate to the 
peculiarities of the subject.
  The exposure in the camera must be very nearly correct.  If a few 
seconds too long or too short there was no means that I ever heard of by 
which the mistake could be rectified.  As a consequence we became very 
sensitive to changes in the light and learned by long practice to guess 
pretty closely to the correct time of exposure.
                                                W. H Sherman.
                       (To be continued.)

(Previous installments appeared on Jan 20 and March 13; both were posted 
to DagNews in 1997 on the date of their original publication. The fourth 
installment will appear on May 15.)
Posted for your enjoyment.     Gary W. Ewer     

Return to: DagNews 1997

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